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Southwestern Colorado & southeastern Utah trip report, June 10 to 15, 2017

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Offline Jonathan Sadow

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Some years ago, I'd visited southwestern Colorado during the late summer.  It was time to check it out during the late spring, so in early June I headed up to the San Juan Mountains.  Noting that Canyonlands National Park wasn't that far away from that area, I decided I'd take the opportunity to check out the Needles District there as well, a place I'd only briefly visited previously.

The trip started out inauspiciously.  On the first full day I was in Colorado, my vehicle refused to start while sitting in the parking lot of the headquarters for the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge.  A jump from a neighboring vehicle and my own portable starter battery failed to get it going, so I had to have the vehicle towed 35 miles to where I was staying in South Fork.  Fortunately, the mechanic who operates the Only Garage in South Fork (yes, that's its name), who can be imagined as an auto mechanic version of the "Soup Nazi" from Seinfeld, found my problem to be interesting and eventually diagnosed and fixed a broken ignition switch.  However, I lost an afternoon and morning to the incident.  Furthermore, I found out from the Forest Service personnel that my planned backpack trip to the Wheeler Geologic Area wouldn't be very practical due to the heavy snowfall from the winter which had yet to melt at the 11 to 12 thousand foot elevation of the Area.  I had to make alternate plans.  Instead of camping at the Area, on June 10 I camped at the Bureau of Land Management's Penitente Canyon Campground.  There's a trail system there mainly used by mountain bikers, but the area was inhabited long before they got there;  the evidence can be found in the pictographs they left behind:

17610013 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

During the day, I traveled across the San Luis Valley to Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve.  The view of the dunes as one approaches from the south is magnificent:

17610002 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

This image was taken about ten miles from the dunefield.  The tallest dune that can be seen is about 750 feet high.  The dunes aren't the only part of the unit, however;  the preserve part contains the eastern slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Even the short walk around the Montville Nature Trail, which follows Mosca Creek out of the mountains, shows a different side to the unit:

17610004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Something fascinating happens during this time of the year.  The snowmelt from the mountains is so abundant that the normally-dry Medano Creek at the edge of the dunefield becomes alive with water:

17610009 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

In fact, the flow rate is so high that the ground becomes saturated with water and can accept no more.  Like a sponge full of water being squeezed, it expels the excess water and causes ripples to flow down the stream, as can be seen near the center of the image.  The temporary resurrection of Medano Creek makes the late spring the most heavily-visited time of the year for the unit, as can be seen here:

17610010 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I'll have to visit again some time when it's less crowded.  After a stay at nearby Valley View Hot Springs, I began to make my way west to Utah.  Along the way, I stopped to hike along the Hope Creek Trail between South Fork and Pagosa Springs.  In 2013, the West Fork fire burned a portion of the forest in the general area, so it was interesting to see what the terrain looked like four years afterward.  Although the tree canopy that used to shade the creek is gone, one salutary effect of the fire is that it opened up views along the trail:

17612013 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The trail ascends into the Weminuche Wilderness to the ridge of the San Juan Mountains:

17612011 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I didn't have the time to climb the 2,000 feeet to the ridge, nor wish to encounter the snow that can be seen at the higher elevations, but the previous time I'd visited the area I took another trail up to the ridge just to right of the image, so I didn't feel I had to go up there this time.  An image I took looking north from the ridge will give you an idea of what the area looked like three years before the fire:

10917002 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

After a night in Pagosa Springs, I drove to Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, where I would stay the next two days.  After a night there, the next morning I hiked down the Squaw Flat Trail to Lost Canyon.  Along the way, one can see the La Sal Mountains, about forty miles away, on the left horizon in this image:

17614002 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The canyon gets its name because it's supposedly easy to get lost there, and after my first look into it I can believe it:

17614005 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The scale of the place is hard to visualize even with photographs. In the lower right part of this image are several hikers coming from the opposite direction that'll give you an idea as to how things size up:

17614006 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Once in the canyon bottom, though, perhaps surprisingly one finds water that has pooled within it:

17614010 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Along the trail, I noticed a short spur leading from it.  At the end was this feature which almost looks like it was manmade.  Human habitation in the area has been documented going back millenia - could this be one of their structures?

17614015 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Eventually, the Lost Canyon Trail makes a steep ascent out of the canyon, and you can look back to see where you've been:

17614019 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

There's more life in the canyon than one might expect.  Among the animals I was able to get a decent image of was this Side-Blotched Lizard:...

17614020 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... a Great Basin Gopher Snake:...

17614023 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and an Ash-throated Flycatcher:

17614024 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Canyonlands isn't all desert.  In areas of the park, the grasslands which used to cover the open areas of the region still exist.  Their relative inaccessiblity saved them from being consumed by cattle like most of the grasslands outside the park:

17614026 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Back at the campground, I managed to get pictures of a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher...

17614028 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and a Desert Cottontail:

17614030 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Before I left the next morning, I finally got a decent shot of the Rock Squirrel that had been hanging around the campsite:

17615005 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

On my way out, I drove by the Needles Overlook, which gives a view of the distinct geological features that gives the area its name:

17615007 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

My last stop on this trip woud be in the La Sal Mountains, southeast of Moab.  I hiked on the short trail from Oowah Lake to Clark Lake.  Oowah Lake is supposedly named such because it's such a stunning sight that people who glimpse it for the first time are so impressed they say, "Oo! Ah!".  You can decide for yourself:

17615009 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

The trail climbs several hundred feet quickly but then levels out into open areas full of wildflowers:

17615011 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Clark Lake itself is tucked away some 3,000 feet under the slopes of Mount Mellenthin, which can be seen in the upper right corner of the image:

17615012 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

I couldn't do amything in the higher elevations on this trip because of the abundant winter snowfall.  I'll have to come back some year later in the season.


Offline mule ears

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Great stuff Jonathan, old stomping grounds for me, especially the La Sals.   :eusa_clap:
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water



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