Sept. 25: We drove to Silverton from Montrose over Highway 550, the infamous "Million Dollar Highway." Some folks have complained that this road is too steep, narrow and twisty, with too few guardrails. We thought it was a piece of cake, compared to some of the other mountain roads we've been on. Just take it slowly, and use the pullouts if you are holding up traffic. Your passenger will enjoy the views. The driver probably should watch the road.
Just north of Silverton, we turned off the highway into the South Mineral Creek area, at around 10,000 feet. It's no secret that there is plenty of boondocking available there. It is fairly close to Silverton, and there are not a lot of other places nearby that are open to boondocking; so we were not surprised to see a fair number of rigs in the wide-open flats next to the creek. Great sites, but no privacy, and too many big rigs with generators. (Bigger rigs often need more electricity, so they tend to run their generators more frequently and for longer periods of time. That's not always true, but often it is.)
We were hoping to score a more secluded site up on the hill, overlooking the canyon and somewhat removed from the forest road. Success! The site I had spotted on Google Earth was open. We hopped out of the truck and checked out the "driveway." It was pretty steep, but not as steep or muddy as the one in Crested Butte. There were some big boulders on either side of the driveway -- we had to do a fairly tricky S-turn to get around them.
The real fun, though, was in turning the trailer around in the campsite at the top of the "driveway." The site was cramped, bouldery, and very uneven -- we were grateful to have such a small and maneuverable trailer. You've heard of a three-point turn? This was a long, slow, nine-point turn, carefully gaining a few degrees of rotation with each back-and-forth iteration. It sounds like a hassle, but no -- it was a really enjoyable process, with Felice planning out the moves, one by one, and guiding the truck and the trailer through the obstacles. This was her reward:
Every time we park the trailer in a new boondocking site, we try to aim the front window at the best possible view. This was the result, viewed from Felice's seat at the dinette:
After getting the trailer leveled and stabilized and setting up the solar panel (pointed due south, with the help of the compass app on Felice's iPhone), we drove up the canyon to South Mineral Campground, which was fairly full of big rigs. Although the campground is technically closed after Labor Day (no trash, no water, no bathrooms), dry camping is still allowed for self-contained vehicles until the snow flies and the road closes. (For some reason, folks in the Rockies don't say "it's open till the first snowfall." They say "it's open till the snow flies.")
Next to the campground was the trailhead for Ice Lake, our goal for the next day's hike. The aspens were backlit by the late afternoon sun:
We took a quick drive (about 15 minutes) into Silverton, which was much more down-to-Earth than fashionable Crested Butte. We got ice cream cones (a luxury!) and walked around town, gawking at the Old-West buildings. This establishment was particularly unpretentious:
Since it was usually too chilly on this trip to sit outside in our camp chairs for cocktails and snacks, there are relatively few photos of our late afternoons. That's sort of unfortunate, in a way -- the blog makes it seem like every day is consumed with strenuous activity. But after hiking or setting up camp, almost every evening involves several hours of snacks, mixed drinks, hot showers, resting, reading, dinner, desert, star-gazing, and enjoying the peace and the silence. Also, because we prefer to camp in cold places, we get to wear warm clothing and we sleep under several blankets, relatively rare treats for Southern Californians. As we sometimes say, we're not roughing it -- we're smoothing it.
Sept. 26: Early in the morning, the cliff on the mountain above the head of the canyon was sharply illuminated -- this view is from inside the trailer. I think that those reddish strata are layers of volcanic ash, rather than ordinary sedimentary rock:
This was the perfect day (cool and breezy) for our big hike to nearby Upper Ice Lake, about 6 miles round trip with an elevation gain of about 2000 feet. Instead of departing from the lower trailhead, we cheated -- we started the hike from a higher elevation, around 10,300 feet. The guidebook told us that there was a rough four-wheel drive road that led to a shortcut. The hardest part of the drive was parking -- the "parking lot" (a wide spot in a narrow road, just big enough for three vehicles) was a jumble of big boulders and deep muddy ruts. No problem -- we crawled up onto the rocks in four-wheel low, and off we went.
The trail was steep and rocky the whole way; there were a couple of places where we had to actually use our hands to climb up and over rocky ridges. This was not real "mountain climbing" -- it was just "manually assisted mountain walking." Effortful but not life-threatening. The thin air was a challenge, even though we were well acclimated to high altitude hiking.
Toward the top of the route, the trail passed over a crest, and this is what we saw:
I hope you are looking at that photo on a good monitor. Believe it or not, that peacock color was far more astonishing and vivid in real life than anything that a computer screen can display, despite my best efforts at editing the image. There were several other experienced hikers who arrived at the lake at the same time that we did, and everyone agreed that none of us had ever seen such a beautiful and jaw-dropping sight. It's different from the deep indigo of Crater Lake -- more luminous, a lighter translucent neon blue, with electric aquamarine highlights and slanting late September afternoon sun sparkles. Indescribable. Mesmerizing. Riveting.
Our hard-working "stout boots," the ones that dragged us up this tough trail to this amazing lake, deserve special recognition:
The color in this video is not too far off the mark:
We sat on the shore for about an hour, trying to soak it all in. As we left, Felice surveyed the canyon of South Mineral Creek, surrounded by thirteen and fourteen thousand foot peaks:
At one point, we passed an outcropping of what I think is breccia, a volcanic formation. But I am not sure -- it might just be conglomerate, since some of the inclusions were cobblestones, rather than angular debris. Maybe it was a mix of both:
Back below treeline, the sun highlighted small groups of multicolored aspens among the dark evergreens:
Near the trailhead, Felice indulged her passion for waterfalls:
That evening, the sunset was framed by the canyon walls -- Felice gave it two thumbs up:
Sept. 27: We hiked to Black Bear Pass, almost 13,000 feet. The access to the trailhead was on yet another really tricky jeep road. This time, Felice really did get out and walk, because the truck felt to her as though it was going to tip over and roll down the cliff. (I did not share her misgivings, but the drive did require a lot of concentration. Fun, in a technical way.)
The "trail" was actually the jeep road itself; the guidebook said that on weekends, there is a lot of traffic, but we saw only two jeeps all day long. However, the trail surface was really difficult -- the gravel had been rounded by the jeeps into marble-size ball bearings, and the dried mud on the roadbed meant that the ball bearings were free to roll out from underfoot, which they certainly did.
The wind was howling up at the pass:
The west side of the pass looked down toward Telluride:
The east side looked out toward Silverton and the many "14ers" (14,000 foot peaks) near Lake City:
After eating our peanut butter sandwiches in the shelter of a rock outcropping, we headed down. The descent was even trickier than the climb had been. I walked as carefully as I could on the "ball bearing" gravel, but my feet slipped out from under me. I didn't fall, but the sudden lurch felt like I had dislocated my hip -- a very sharp pain. Felice was right there with the Advil -- yay for being prepared! I limped all the way back to the truck, a couple of miles on that bad footing. Not fun.
I was sure that our trip was at an end -- that we would have to begin the long drive home. But miraculously, I felt pretty good the next morning, we went for another hike, and I was just fine.
Sept. 28: This was a much better day -- we took the Minnie Gulch hike up to the Continental Divide Trail. The route to the trailhead was another in a series of fun jeep trails, with more crawling over rocks on the edge of a cliff. It could not have been too bad, though, since Felice never once got out and walked. The trailhead was at 11,500 feet!
We were not surprised to be the only folks on the trail -- this was really out in the middle of nowhere. (In the distance, we did see one intrepid young lady on a mountain bike.) The trail angled upslope through a broad windswept glaciated valley. At the ridgeline, we crossed the Continental Divide Trail, marked out with big stone cairns every quarter mile or so:
In this photo, I am standing on the divide, pointing to the Atlantic drainage:
After meeting up with the CDT, the trail followed the ridge to the north, steadily gaining elevation -- we went for about 6 miles round trip, ending up at around 13,000 feet. The whole hike was far above treeline, so the geology was well-exposed; across the canyon, we could see a volcanic plug (the black cliffs and the talus slope), flanked by strata of volcanic ash (on the right side of the photo):
This was not the most photogenic hike we have taken, precisely because the landscape was so vast in scope; there is no way to provide any scale in the pictures. And yet this was one of our favorite hikes of the whole trip -- such an isolated, wild, "top of the world" feeling.
To give some sense of scale, the truck is in the center of this shot:
There were mining ruins all along the trail and the jeep road, including this little cabin:
On our way back to our campsite, we stopped in Silverton for a minute to check the weather. Surprise! A Pacific hurricane was on its way to the Four Corners area (including Silverton), promising several days of heavy rain and flash flooding. Uh-oh. Our plan had been to head to Capitol Reef in Utah, directly in the central path of the storm.
Sitting in the parking lot near the Silverton Visitors' Center (great cell signal!), we read several of the detailed National Weather Service forecast discussions, each covering a specific geographical area. They are full of technical language, but they provide the most complete analysis. Flagstaff looked bad. So did Las Vegas. And Grand Junction. Even Reno was iffy.
But Albuquerque gave us hope -- they thought the storm would brush western New Mexico but not the central or eastern portions. Only one problem -- we had no guidebooks for hiking in the Taos or Santa Fe areas, no downloaded Motor Vehicle Use Maps, only a partial "Four Corners" paper map. We would have to wing it, depending on Felice's iPhone as our lifeboat.
This plan became our on-the-fly "draw play" strategy: the storm would rush in from the southwest to the northeast, and we would run around the back of the storm and return home via the southern route, just after the storm had passed. It worked!
Sept. 29: We packed up, hitched up, and headed to Taos via Durango and Pagosa Springs. Although it was only a 250 mile trip, it took most of the day, since the roads were slow and twisty. Highway 64 was particularly beautiful, passing through large stands of aspen in the high country of the Carson National Forest. We got a space in an RV park for the night and ate dinner on the patio at La Cueva (not fancy, but great food and excellent salsa roja).
Next: Part 5 (Taos)