Saturday, December 20, 2014

Browns Canyon: Turret-River Bench Trails

Distance: 6 miles round trip
Elevation: 7,318 ft -7,689 ft
Elevation Gain: 877 ft cumulative
Dogs: Off leash, BLM land
Bathroom at Trailhead: No
Date Hiked: 24 October 2014

The Turret Trail in the Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area is a study in diversity. 
The Browns Canyon Wilderness Study Area near Buena Vista is a 22,000 acre chunk of transitional land that is part open grassland, part scraggy forest, and part granite hoodoo. This route travels through all three of these zones in a dizzying display of diversity. The Collegiate Peaks (Mt. Princeton, Harvard, and Yale) block the western horizon. They rise a dramatic 5000 ft above the surrounding valley in a wall that Nature surely put in place to keep out the teaming hordes from the western slope.

View of Mt. Princeton from the trailhead
Heading up the initial slope
On the initial saddle
The trailhead is marked with large signs indicating the study area and even has a couple of interpretive plaques. The route starts up a rocky gully between two hills until it reaches a small saddle at only 0.2 miles. Be sure to turn left here. An old road/eroded ditch heads to the right, which is slightly confusing.

Turning left and heading away the mountains
A not-so-unusal trail segment. Rock and trees. 
The trail winds up and down small hillsides. This is the view from a top one of them. 
The trail continues to climb for another 0.5 miles to a high point (300 ft gain) before beginning a series of descents and ascents over rock outcroppings, down gullies, and along and across several washes. There is no signage or cairns, and in several locations we had to rely on tracks in the loose sand to guide our way.

On another hill looking out over the Collegiate Peaks
Coming out into the wash. Turn right here and follow it around the bend. 
The one trail sign. It points up the slope and out of the wash. 
At 1.2 miles is a very large wash. The route actually travels IN this wash (to the right) and around a bend to the southwest until one of the few signs (at 1.35 miles) takes the hiker out of the wash and up onto a open grassland plateau. From this point it is wide-open skies all the way to the junction with the River Bench Trail (at 2 miles). The Turret Trail heads left, while the River Bench Trail travels around to the right of an eroded hillside filled with more hoodoos. It was at this point that we came across several Mule Deer that leapt and flew, leapt and flew, across our path in an effortless ballet that would have made Mikhail Baryshnikov's nickers twist with envy.

Artwork on the fence post leading out onto the grassland plateau
The plateau was crisscrossed with small washes. 
Heading across the plateau
The River Bench Trail dead ends (at 2.9 miles) at backcountry campsite complete with a central fire pit and luxurious logs. The Arkansas River, charming and sedate in the fall, a tad more perky in the spring, flowed just out of reach down a steep embankment. With such a view, we had to drag ourselves away to return to the car. Next time I will bring a gourmet lunch and contemplate the river through a glass of wine.

Passing around the hillside
More hoodoos along the way. Mountain Lion territory. 
Mule Deer with Mt. Yale in the background
Browns Canyon is up for National Monument consideration. We only scratched the surface of this unique area on this trip but the unusual combination of granite outcroppings, Ponderosa and Limber Pine forest, and Sagebrush grasslands was really a treat. Colorado is blessed with so many interesting ecosystems. The one found in Brown's Canyon is both fun to play in and deserving of protection. I hope the powers in Washington, who don't always understand the West and our culture, decide to preserve it. Regardless, take a trip to Beuna Vista and check it out for yourself.

The campsite
The lovely view of the Arkansas River

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Golden Gate Canyon State Park: Black Bear-Horeshoe Loop

Distance: 5.6 miles round trip
Elevation: 8,180 ft - 9,379 ft
Elevation Gain: 1,516 (cumulative)
Bathroom at Trailhead: No (closest is the visitor's center)
Dogs: On leash (State Park)
Date Hiked: 7 Sept 2014

Rocks, pine, and lots of sky dominate the Black Bear Trail in Golden Gate Canyon State Park
Golden Gate Canyon State Park near Golden, CO is filled with numerous and varied hiking options...often on the same route. The Black Bear-Horseshoe Loop is a perfect example. Uphill, downhill, rock scrambles, and open meadows are just some of the features I encountered. The park has an amazing backcountry feel even though it is within spitting distance of the city.

The loop described here ascends the Black Bear Trail, turns right onto the Mule Deer Trail, continues past the Horseshoe Trail to a spur that goes through Greenfield Meadow, then down the Horseshoe Trail to a connector that goes back to the Ralston Roost parking area.
The route starts directly across from the Ralston Roost parking lot on a small dirt track. The first 0.34 miles is very steep and rocky with an immediate 215 ft of elevation gain. Like most of the route, it alternates between Ponderosa Pine, open grasslands, and small clumps of Aspen.

The start of the Black Bear Trail
Much of the early route is open Ponderosa Pine
At 1.0 and 1.3 miles are two viewpoints. The first is more of a jumble of rocks, while the second is a broad shelf looking down on the pastoral beauty of several ranches. From this point the trail begins to descend a bit and then gradually increases again to the highest point on the route at 2.0 miles. The route to this spot goes through a large pile of boulders (trail signs guide the way), and across a narrow strip of land where fins of knee-high rock extrude like scales on a dragons back. When the trees thin, you can see Mt. Evans as well as Grays and Torreys in the distance.

Looking down from the first view point. That is Golden Gate Canyon Road.
Can you spot the hiker in this photo? The trail goes around the boulder.
From the high point, the trail descends through Lodgepole Pine to the junction with the Mule Deer Trail at 2.6 miles. At this point the trail is wide and sandy. Don't get sucked off onto the spur trail to several campsites, which is 20 yards or so before the junction.

Route finding through the boulders
Looking down on ranch land
We chose to continue on the Mule Deer Trail past the connection with the Horseshoe Trail (at 3 miles) to a lesser used trail that travel down towards Greenfield Meadow and several more backcountry campsites (see map). Just before the Horseshoe Trail is a very large meadow whose tall grasses could have hidden an entire herd of Mule Deer. A small cabin and interpretive site marks the spot. The meadow was a Pleistocene paradise, a testament to the 2014 rains and our ever changing climate.

Walking across the dragons back
Now on the shady Mule Deer Trail
Getting to our turnoff for Greenfield Meadow involved switching from a single track through Aspen to a large dirt road. The transition was unexpected and we looked around a bit before proceeding. The trail to the campsites splits off from Mule Deer Trail only 0.3 miles beyond the Mule/Horseshoe so we eventually found the junction. A large green sign talking about campsites exists at a right angle to the road.

Meadow by the Horseshoe junction
Ahead the Mule Deer Trail goes left while the spur trail that becomes a dirt road goes straight.
From this point the trail gets a little rougher as it winds down and through small stands of Aspen. At 4 miles the trail rejoins the Horseshoe Trail. It is more of the same for another mile until the trail connecting back to the Black Bear Trail splits off. This short half mile trail heads uphill again through a dense Lodgepole forest with occasional traverses of open hillsides.

Heading up the dirt road
Heading back down the Horseshoe Trail
Since our dog is getting older and tolerates being on a leash more, I am getting to explore new areas including Golden Gate Canyon State Park. The Aspens in fall are very nice indeed and there are even camping yurts that might be fun to try out. Another long hike to do in the park is the Mountain Lion Trail with a side trip to Windy Peak.

The connector trail leading from the Horseshoe Trail back over to the Black Bear Trail is a total change. It is uphill and in a Lodgepole forest.
Almost back to the parking lot.