Friday, June 19, 2015

Local Escapes: Turkey Rock, Castle Gardens, and Bighorn Sheep Canyon

With questionable snow conditions still lingering in the higher mountains the past few week, I focused on outings close to home recently.  While I have gone on more than a handful of hikes and bikes in this time, all of the trips were within 20 minutes of my house.  Luckily I live in Colorado and I can find many places to play close to home.

Since Colorado is lucky enough to have so many scenic places, some of these places close to home see few people.  There is no shortage of scenery on these local trips and less people gives me the chance to see some wildlife.

Turkey Rock is a place I visit occasionally for a quick hike.  Turkey Rock is located on BLM land in Howard, CO and only a ten minute drive from my house. The area is known to some as a trial dirt bike destination but outside that community it seems to relatively unknown by anyone but locals.  Driving through Howard on US 50, the cliffs and small craggy peak of the area are visible but most people are probably looking at the other direction at the peaks of the northern Sangre de Cristo Range and miss the area.

The Turkey Rock area from the valley
The view of the Sangres on the other side of the valley
There are several interesting features at Turkey Rock that are appealing.  The first area of interest is the rocky formations.  I usually scramble over the rocks following the path of least resistence and avoiding cliffs.  There are several informal trails that can be followed but generally the area is trailess.  After traveling around and over the rocks, the only formal trail in the area is reached.

One of the jumbles of rocks in the area
More interesting rock features
The first view of the cliffs at Turkey Rock
North of the trail is the real area of interest.  Standing out is the cliff band that is visible along the road.  From the front side, the shear cliffs rise over 100 feet.  At the end of the cliff band is the namesake Turkey Rock.  From below, the fractured cliffs resemble the profile of a fanning turkey.  Since the Turkey is near the end of the cliffs it doesn't stand out from the highway but if you know where to look, the 50 foot or so tall turkey profile is visible.

The cliffs from below.  The turkey on the right.
Turkey Rock
Behind the cliffs the terrain slopes into the back of rocks.  It is possible to climb to top of the cliffs without any gear.  The scramble isn't for the faint of heart as there is a 100 foot drop on the other side and depending on the route is still a class 3-4 climb.  The views from the top of the cliffs are impressive with a grandstand view of the Twin Sister summits and neighboring peaks.  Looking up the river valley, Shavano, Antero, Princeton, and their neighboring peaks are visible.  Down the river the Cottonwood group of the Sangres stand out.

Sangres view from the top of the cliffs
Cottonwood Group
Southern Sawatch Range with Shavano and Antero
Standing behind the cliffs is a small peak that rises about 700 feet above the river valley.  From the valley it h nearly resembles a volcano.  I usually climb this peak when I visit Turkey Rock for even better views.  The peak is relatively steep but moderate scrambling up the front ridge isn't too bad.  From its small flat summit, the 360 degree views make the short scramble worthwhile.  The views are further reaching than from the top of the cliffs.

Jumble of rocks approaching the peak
Looking down on the cliffs
View of the Sangres from the summit
Summit view of southern Sawatch Range
Another look toward the Sangres
Looking north from the summit
Another look over the cliffs toward the Sangres while
descending from the peak.
Once I leave the summit I usually link informal trails and drainages to put together a small loop back to my starting point.  The area is around 7000 feet in elevation and the terrain is rather scrubby.  I never take the same exact route and it is always fun too explore different routes.  I usually manage about two hours of hiking when I visit the area.  I'm never disappointed by a quick trip to Turkey Rock.

Looking back toward the peak and cliffs.
Castle Gardens is a local secret among Salida residents for a quick backyard escape.  I don't think too many people are familiar with Castle Gardens outside of Salida however.  The area has a unique landscape for the region.  The terrain resembles Utah desert more than the heart of the Rockies.  I have mountain biked local trails that overlook Castle Gardens but never explored the area on foot.

I finally decided to explore the area on foot a couple weeks ago while Puma was at a work meeting.  The trailhead is only a mile or so southeast of Salida at the Living Waters Church.  A trail leads from the parking  lot onto BLM land and into Castle Gardens.

Although the area once was accessible by vehicles, now only foot traffic is allowed.  The trail leads into a large wash that is usually dry.  Once in the wash you, can follow the wash ,or continue on the trail.  The trail eventually ends however.  The area is a small basin enclosed by steep banks on three sides so you can't really get lost.

I followed the trail until it faded before following the various washes taking the path of least resistance.  The footing is very sandy and loose in the area.  It doesn't take too long before reaching some interesting formations.  Spires are visible after only a few minutes of walking.  Small canyons line some sections of the main wash.

A spire early on the walk in Castle Gardens
Looking up the basin early on the hike
The trail is visible on the right and the
northern most peaks of the Sangres.
The terrain gets more interesting the further you hike.
Interesting erosion in the sand
The interesting sand patterns go from the rim to the basin
After no more than a half hour or so of walking, I reached the most interesting section of Castle Gardens.  Several tall hoodoos and spires come into sight.  The rim of the basin also has some interesting shapes in the sand from erosion over time.  From the heart of the basin the three sided rim comes into view.  A few steep ridges lead to the rim.

One of the more interesting areas
This area has many small hoodoos
This part of Castle Gardens has many
interesting sand features
Another neatly sculpted section
Looking down on hoodoos
Closer look at the hoodoos
The most dramatic spire
After exploring the formations, I followed one of the ridges to the rim.  Since the ground is very sandy, climbing the various ridges is tougher than it looks with very loose footing.  Once on the rim there are some impressive views overlooking the basin and of the surrounding mountains.  The southern Sawatch and northern Sangre de Cristos are both visible.

Ridge  I followed to the rim
Close up of the Sangres with heavy snow cover at the end of May
There is a rough BLM road that circles the rim as well an unofficial trail.  I followed the trail around the rim until it started descending back toward the valley.  I descended back into the basin when I found a suitable ridge that wasn't too steep.  Descending was sketchy on the loose and sandy soil, almost a  like skiing at times.

View from above of Castle Gardens
The Sawatch Range from the rim
Several ridges leading from the basin
Ridge I descended back into basin
Once back in the basin I followed the various washes back to the trailhead.  Since there are so many washes in the area, each route is a little different.  On the way out I passed a small cave that I'm guessing was an old mine but I'm not positive since there is very little info on the area.  My return route also traveled through a couple small canyons.

View toward the northern end of Castle Gardens
Traveling down the main wash
Continuing down the main wash along some steep walls 
Cave or mine entrance
Close up of entrance
If you have some spare time while in Salida, Castle Gardens is worth checking out.  Traveling to the most interesting features is only about a mile of walking one way and it's unlike any other area near Salida.  Taking your time, you could spend a couple hours in the area.  Since the elevation is low, it's a good option in the winter.  It can get hot in the summer and there are rattlesnakes in the area so keep an eye open.

If I'm in the mood for a quick trip on my bike, I often ride along the Arkansas River.  While US 50 travels along the river in  Bighorn Sheep Canyon, the other side of the river has a small road as well.  While part of the road is maintained dirt, much of the road is a rougher BLM road.  The road is often just a few feet from the river with decent views of the canyon and the northern Sangre de Cristos.  There is the occasional wildlife sightings along the river as well.

Since the river is only 5 minutes from my house, it makes a nice couple hour bike ride close to home.  On my most recent ride there, I traveled about 10 miles up river to Wellsville and back.  While there are plenty of more exciting rides in the area, I did get some photos that I would like to share.

Bull Snake on the road
Bull Snake coiled
A pair of bighorn sheep ewes 
Blooming cactus near the river
Heading down Wells Gulch on narrow dirt road
The Salida area has plenty of well known destinations for outdoor recreation.  There area plenty of lesser known places that are just as worthy of exploration.  Many of these areas are overlooked by travelers from outside of the region.   They do make for nice getaways for quick outings however.  Not every trip can be an epic and an hour or two in nature can be enough to recharge your batteries.

For another little know destination in the Salida area you can also visit Wellsville Arch (Very close to where I photographed the sheep.)  To read about Wellsville Arch click the link below to see a visit to the area last fall..
Wellsville Arch- A Quick Outing Close to Home

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