Thursday, May 14, 2015

Views from the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness

The past month has been filled with snow and rain.  The mountains surrounding Salida that had mostly bare summits in early April are now blanketed with a heavy coat of snow.  Even the lower elevations received quite a bit of snow.  Mid April saw one storm with 22 inches of snow at my house and we had 2 inches as recently as this past weekend.  Because we have been stuck in this dreary pattern, it has been difficult to get in some quality time outdoors.

The first half of spring was quite dry.  Mountain biking was my sport of choice before the wet weather arrived.  Since the mid April storm, it has been difficult to find trails dry long enough to get in a ride.  Clouds have been the norm in the high country with the chance of rain or snow most days the past month.  A lot of snow has also made for unsafe conditions in many locations in the mountains as well.

Since most of my time recreating was focused on mountain biking in lower elevations, I was eager to get back into an alpine setting.  Two weeks ago I went for a quick hike to Brown's Pass.  Brown's Pass sits on the Continental Divide at just over 12,000 feet in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness near Mt. Yale.  I had a brief window of clear skies and made a quick trip to the pass and back.  The pass sit above treeline and has fantastic views of the surrounding high country and endless mountains.  The mountains had the most snow coverage I have seen all winter.  I contemplated hiking further but I forgot sunscreen.  With intense sun and the reflection on the snow, I didn't want to take chances getting baked.  I was already cooked by the sun and snow reflection in similar conditions more than  a month earlier and the sun has only grown more intense since then.

Since that trip to Brown's Pass, the weather continued to be dreary.  Finally I had a small break of clear weather on a day off that I could hike.  Unfortunately, the mountains just received more snow and the snow didn't have time to consolidate.   I didn't want to take my chances on sketchy snow.  I decided to head back to Brown's Pass which travels over tame terrain.  My first trip, I forgot my camera battery and wanted to get some photos of the scenery while the mountains are so covered in snow.  I also wanted to continue from the pass along the Continental Divide.

I left the Denny Creek Trailhead about 7am.  Even though the mountains still wore a heavy blanket of snow, the start of the hike quite a bit less snowy than 2 weeks prior.  Last time the trail was snow covered completely except for the first couple hundred feet.  This time the trail was a mix of snow and bare ground for nearly the first 2 miles and 1000 vertical feet. The temperature was right around 30F when I started.  I was able to travel bareboot for at least 2.5 miles on firm snow before putting on my snowshoes.

The hike starts traveling through the woods.  The first 1.3 miles use the same trail that accesses Mt. Yale.  The only other tracks I saw in the beginning turned toward Mt. Yale. Less than 2 miles in, the woods thin and some of the surrounding peaks come into view.  There is another junction about 2 miles from the start.  A trail turns off to the left toward Hartenstein Lake.  I continued straight on the Brown's Pass Trail.  Because of snow cover, the actual trail was nowhere to be seen and I continued traveling through a mostly open meadow.

Early views of the Continental Divide
Looking back down the trail toward Mt Princeton
Close up of Mt Princeton area
As the morning warmed, the snow became softer.  I began to sink a little more with each step and finally put on my snowshoes after about 2.5 miles of hiking.  Generally the snow supported me with my snowshoes but where the sun was hitting the snow I sank a little deeper, especially on steeper slopes.

PTs 12,956 and 12,524
PT 12,956
PT 12,524
Entering a meadow on Brown's Pass Trail
Climbing toward Brown's Pass
As my route climbed toward the pass, the meadow opened as the trees thinned.  The last bit of the climb to the pass travels through an open alpine basin.  Brown's Pass sits on the Continental Divide.  From the pass the views to the north are stunning.  Most impressive are the views toward the rugged peaks of the Three Apostles.  14ers Harvard and Columbia tower above to the northeast.

Looking north from Brown's Pass
Looking along the Divide north from the pass
Three Apostles
PT 12,524 from Brown's Pass
View back down Denny Gulch from Brown's Pass
From the pass, I continued south along the Divide.  There is a long ridgeline with unnamed alpine summits leading back toward Cottonwood Pass.  My plan was to travel this ridge as long as it seemed safe with the current snow conditions.  The ridge appeared safe for at least the first several bumps along the Divide.
Looking south on the Divide
The initial climb to the ridge is short and only moderately steep, not steep enough for avalanche concerns.  Luckily I didn't need to go very far to get to the ridge.  The snow was very loose and soft as I climbed.  At the steepest part, the snow broke off in slabs but it wasn't steep enough to slide.  Travel was easier once I got past the initial climb.  The snow was thinner and more scoured along the top of the ridge. I passed over a couple low bumps along the ridge but nothing substantial.  The divide was mostly flat to start.

Mt Yale
Distant peaks
Looking across basin to the west of the Divide
Another shot toward PTs 12,524 and 12,956 as
I move along the Divide
Another look toward Yale
Three Apostles and I think 14er Huron beyond
Looking back along the Divide toward Harvard and Columbia
The first spot on the Divide with any noticeable climb was PT 12,524.  Colorado has so many mountains that many lower peak, and 12,524 is low by Colorado standards, go unamed.  Albeit short, the climb was relatively steep.  The snow was fairly thin and I was able to safely ascend with my snowshoes.  From the top of PT 12,524 I had to decide if I wanted to continue along the Divide.

PT 12, 956 from the top of PT 12,524
The terrain becomes more rugged beyond PT 12,524.  The next peak along the Divide is PT 12,956.  PT 12,956 is extremely steep on its south side.  The ridge connecting the two peaks requires a traverse over a short knife edge.  As the day warmed and sun started to hit the snow, the snow's condition was deteriorating.  With firmer snow or less snow, I would have felt safe on the knife edge.  I didn't feel safe trying to traverse the knife edge with the slabby snow.  The steep south and east side of PT 12,956 also had the remains of numerous avalanches.  Even if I could pass the knife edge, I'm not sure I would have been able to descend safely into the Denny Gulch drainage.

A closer view of PT 12,956 and the route I decide not to take
14ers Harvard and Columbia
The stunning view to the north
Another shot of Yale
From PT 12,524 I descended to the east toward the meadow along the Brown's Pass Trail.  The slope was shallow enough to safely descend.  The sun was hitting it directly and I sank quite a bit even with the snowshoes.  Had the snow been firmer I may have needed my ice ax, but the poles were fine with the soft conditions.  After passing the junction for Hartenstein Lake, I started hitting large stretches of bare ground and took off my snowshoes.  Because the trail traveled between large stretch of bare ground and snow, it was easier to travel without the snowshoes the rest of the way.  I did posthole above my knees a few times but generally travel wasn't to bad on the despite the softening snow.

My descent from PT 12,524
This trip was a fairly quick and not too difficult.  I did face a wide variety of snow conditions however ranging from firm crust, to mash potatoes, to slush.  I hiked only 4 hours, covering about 8 miles.  I didn't climb any major summits and gaining the Continental Divide at Brown's Pass is gradual.  The scenery however was stunning, with the heavy snow cover enhancing the already beautiful views.  Sitting on the Continental Divide in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, there are no signs of civilization visible.  Numerous 14ers are visible from this route as well.  The date of this trip was May 11 and the mountains were covered with more snow than I have seen all winter.  In summer conditions I imagine the trip to Brown's Pass would be a fairly easy hike.  Even in snow, it's a safe bet for someone seeking a trip above treeline without too much avalanche risk.  At some point I will probably return to traverse the peaks to the south when there is safer conditions or no snow.

Close up of the Three Apostles
North from Brown's Pass
Yale Close up
Princeton, Antero, and neighboring peaks


Friday, April 17, 2015

Mountain Biking Fruita- Kokopelli Area Trails

Colorado has no shortage of world class mountain biking.  Perhaps the best known of Colorado's destinations in the mountain biking community is Fruita.  Fruita sits in far western Colorado less than 20 miles from the Utah border near Grand Junction.  While Colorado may be best known for the Rocky Mountains and alpine scenery, the Fruita area features high desert riding with canyons, slickrock, and scrubby vegetation.  While Fruita may not be quite as well known as nearby Moab in Utah, Fruita gets plenty of coverage in the world of mountain biking and is a huge destination for riders from, not only Colorado, but from all across the US.

Since I moved to Colorado last summer, I had my eyes on riding the Fruita area.  I may live in the same state but it isn't exactly down the road.  It is nearly a four hour drive, making it a bit far for one day trip.  My plan was originally to spend a night in the area and put in at least two days of riding.

Puma and I raised chickens for years.  However when we moved from Maine to Colorado, we left our flock behind.  With spring in full swing, we were looking to rebuild our flock.  Puma found specific breeds of birds that she had interest in the Grand Junction area.  The drive was a bit far just for chickens.  She knew I have been looking to put together a trip to the Fruita area.  Without much difficulty, she talked me into making a day trip to Fruita to mountain bike.  I just had to make a couple of extra stops after my ride to pick up chickens.

I woke up at 430am and hit the road by 5.  The first hour of the drive was before the sunrise.  The drive went smoothly and I was at the trailhead before 9am.  Driving early in the morning allowed me to see several herds of elk along Highway 50.  The herds were all in the same general area between Gunnison and Montrose.  The largest herd I'm guessing was around 40 or so elk.

The Fruita and Grand Junction area has several groups of trails to choose from.  The Kokopelli Loops, 18 Road, Lunch Loops, and Rabbit Valley are among the more popular riding areas.  I only had one day to ride this trip so I chose to ride trails at the Kokopelli Loops.  The Kokopelli Loops area has at least ten trails including the Kokopelli Trail and around 40 miles of riding.  I have heard nothing but great things about these trails.  Nearly every report on this area boasted of great variety and stunning scenery.  The photos of the area seemed to confirm the reports.

Like the name implies, there are numerous loops in the Kokepelli Loops area.  None of the trails, with the exception of the Kokopelli, are that long.  It is easy to combine different trails and loops to put in a nice ride of any length and suit any skill level.  After looking at maps of the area and reading trail reviews, I chose a route that combined numerous trails to put together a ride that would offer a decent variety of terrain and take in as much scenery as possible.

I started my ride from the Kokopelli Trailhead which is located conveniently very close to exit 15 of I-70.  After a quick climb from the trailhead, I descended to the start of Mary's Loop.  Mary's Loop initially climbed on somewhat rough double track.  The scenery starts quickly with views of the Colorado River from high above the canyon.  The trail stays double track with a few technical sections all the way to the start of the Horsethief Bench Loop.

The scenery starts quickly
Easy double track early on Mary's Loop
Looking down toward Rustler's Loop
The Colorado comes into view
The start of the Horsethief Bench Loop was the most technical part my ride.  The trail drops steeply over gnarly terrain for 100 yards or so down to the bench.  Sections of this can be ridden but there isn't much room for error.  The gnarliest sections have drops of a couple feet or more and it isn't for the faint of heart.  The rocks were full of scrapes from chainrings and pedals from riders that attempt the section.  I carried most of the way down as did other riders I saw in the area.

The rough descent into Horsethief Bench
Looking across Horsethief Bench
Once past the drop-in, the trail mellows out for the most part and is rideable most of the way.  Much of Horsethief Bench has good flow with some technical sections as its singletrack winds through the desert.  There are sections of smooth trail, slickrock, sand, ledge, and rock in good proportion.  A few places were a little too technical for me to ride cleanly.  I also had a spill on this trail making a bad transition down a rock drop into the sand.  The scenery along Horsethief Bench is stunning.  Much of the loop travels high above the Colorado River with grand views of the canyon.  When the loop travels away from the river, the trail passes through small slots and under cliffs.  After 3.8 miles the loop comes back to the steep section before climbing back to Mary's Loop.

Section of slickrock
Looking down the river
Sweet singletrack and sweet views following the rim
Cliffs across the river
Rock formation across the river
Smooth trail on Horsethief Bench
Heading up slickrock into a wash
Climbing up a small canyon
Grassy section of Horsethief Bench
Riding around a slot canyon
Following a sandy wash
Riding below cliffs
Mary's Loop continued along doubletrack for a couple miles before narrowing down to singletrack when it reached a slot.  The trail was somewhat technical with rocky stretches.  I followed Mary's Loop for about 3 miles riding close to the rim high above the river until I reached Steve's Loop.

A technical section on Mary's Loop that travels a few feet from the
rim.  It's the same rim you see in the distance.
Riding along the canyon rim just feet from a long drop
Heading into a rocky stretch on Mary's Loop.  
More riding along the rim
Riding high above Steve's Loop
A flowy stretch of singletrack
Steve's Loop was probably my favorite section of this ride.  Steve's Loop featured huge views of the river with great desert terrain along the way.  The trail traveled around several large slot canyons when it wasn't riding along the rim of the main canyon above the river.  As the trail continued, it climbed back toward Mary's Loop while overlooking the terrain that I had just ridden.  Steve's Loop wasn't quite as difficult as Horsethief Bench Loop.

Nice view of the river
A canyon the trail passes around, the
trail rides along the top of the wall
Another slot to ride around
Riding around another canyon
The trail rides along the top of the wall
Looking back where I rode on Steve's Loop
Looking down on a slot I rode around earlier
After Steve's Loop I headed back toward the start on Mary's Loop.  This section of Mary's Loop was back on double track with some rocky sections.  As I neared the beginning of Steve's Loop I headed back into the singletrack in a narrow, technical section of Mary's Loop.  I noticed my bike felt mushy.  I then noticed the hissing.  I looked down and saw my rear tire was rapidly loosing air.  I had a pinch flat as a result of a poorly executed bunny hop over a rock at high speed.  I changed my tube and was back on my way with not too much lost time.

After a couple more miles on Mary's Loop I turned onto Wrangler's Loop.  Wrangler's Loop travels away from the canyons on singletrack with good flow for a couple miles.  The loop is generally fairly easy until it descends the last 3/4 of a mile.  The drop is on somewhat rough double track with loose rock that may pose problems for inexperienced riders.  Wrangler's Loop ends near the beginning of Mary's Loop.

Looking down on Horsethief Bench
Wrangler's Loop
Another section of Wrangler's
I had ridden nearly 18 miles by this point but wasn't quite ready to call it quits.  Rather than turn toward the trailhead, I headed toward Rustler's Loop.  Rustler's Loop is just under 4 miles and is the main beginner's loop in the area.  Despite being one of the easier trails in the area, riding it was quite a blast.  The trail offers everything the other Kokopelli Loops trails offer, but in a small package.  There is fun and flowy singletrack most of the way.  There are a few short, easier technical sections with ledges, slickrock, switchbacks, and changing terrain.  There is nice scenery from the rim of the canyon and plenty of steep cliffs near the trail.  An experienced rider can fly through the loop pretty quickly but it still offers a great mix of trail in a short distance.

River views on Rustler's
Looking across the river
Nice singletrack on Rustler's
Rustler's Loop is set up as an interpretive trail for newer riders.  Along the way there are signs with pointers on how to tackle the terrain.  Someone with more than a few miles on a bike might find it boring to ride only Rustler's Loop.  However I recommend adding it to the start or end of a longer ride to get just a little more scenery and a fun trail that does throw a little bit of everything at you including nearly 4 miles of great singletrack.

One last look at the river and canyon on Rustler's
Riding under a cliff near the end of Rustler's
After Rustler's Loop I headed back to the trailhead to wrap up my ride.  I rode just over 22 miles with 2:40 of riding, although my total time was a little longer with the flat and a few stops to take in the views.   The total climbing was around 2200 feet.  Even with the distance and decent elevation gain, I didn't feel too beat after this ride and still had some energy left in me which I find surprising since I awoke at 430am and drove nearly 4 hours before my ride.  Maybe I was just amped from the great riding and fine scenery.

Nice rock formations across the river
There is still quite a few more trails at the Kokopelli Loops that I didn't ride.  This ride however was a great introduction to the Fruita area.  The riding lived up to the hype.  I will definitely be coming back to ride again.  Next time I will make it at least an overnight trip so I can explore more of the area.  If I didn't have my secondary mission of picking up chickens, I would have made it a multiday trip this time.

More rock formations
There are numerous technical sections on this ride and I wouldn't recommend some of the side loops to anyone less than an intermediate rider.  There are a few obstacle that even veterans will have difficulty clearing cleanly.  The area has a fair amount of rocks and ledge to traverse.  Despite the 2200 feet of total elevation gain, there never seemed to be any real long climbs or descents.

Good view down the canyon from Horsethief Bench Loop
I can't recommend this area enough to serious mountain bikers.  This area is no secret however and you won't have the place to yourself.  I rode on a Monday morning and the parking lots were fairly full and I saw quite a few groups on the trails.  Because there are many different trails, and several loops seem to favor a specific direction of travel, you can avoid traffic on the trails most of the time. Riding here on a nice weekend is probably another story.  I probably wouldn't ride here in the peak of summer because the area gets quite hot and is very dry.  It is after all desert.  I enjoyed a 70 degree temperature by the end of my ride.  By Colorado standards, this ride is fairly low in elevation, never reaching above 5000 feet.  It might be a good place to ride to acclimate before riding higher elevations.  Because of its lower elevation and desert climate, Fruita sees little snow and experiences warmer winter weather making it a good destination when most of the high country is covered in snow.

Looking down a large slot canyon on Steve's Loop
After the ride, it was time for the second part of my trip, shopping for chicks.  Luckily this went smoothly and I was soon on the road for the nearly four hour drive home.  With the exception of the nearly constant chirping from the chicks, the return home was uneventful and I was at the house by 630PM to Puma eagerly awaiting her new flock members.

Desert blooms
Click on the link below for a map of the trails in the area.
Trail Map