The Central Rockies, Part I

On July 1, we left Great Basin National Park, in east-central Nevada, and drove across Utah to its northeastern corner, to explore the Uinta Mountains. For the first time since mid-March, we essentially returned to our original schedule and itinerary for the year. Our 2020 plan called for spending the months of July and August exploring the higher elevation forests and alpine areas of the central Rocky Mountains, which can be outstanding for wildflowers at this time of year. The Uinta Mountains, a range just within the western boundary of the Rockies, run about 100 miles in an east-west direction. Only one road, the Mirror Lake Highway, crosses the crest of the mountain range; it is located near its western edge, and is where we began our tour.Our first campsite was good for plants, many of which were different from those we had been seeing in the Great Basin, even at higher elevations. It also gave us a fine view of a stretch of stream occupied by a family of American Dippers. These birds forage from boulders in streams and can walk underwater, on the bottom, in areas with surprisingly strong currents. The next day we hiked on the popular Lofty Lakes Trail, a 4.2-mile loop trail with 900 feet of elevation gain, starting at 10,150 feet. The views were spectacular but the trail surface was extremely rocky, so we averaged under one mile per hour, and were quite sore the next day. Highlights of the hike were a spectacular alpine primrose, Primula parryi, and superb views of a flock of Pine Grosbeaks.

American Dipper, Soapstone Basin Rd, Uinta Mtns, UT
Above: American Dipper, Uinta Mtns, UT

We started east, along the north slope of the Uinta Mountains, and found a nice area to camp north of Elizabeth Pass, at 10,250 feet of elevation. We ended up staying here for four nights, as it was relatively quiet for the 4th of July weekend, and we had a decent cell signal, though we had no idea from whence it came (and it would be our only usable signal in a campsite for the entire month of July). I took advantage of the signal to back up photos and data to the cloud, and send out the last blog post. Continuing east on a series of dirt forest service roads, we reached pavement again after a bit over 90 miles, near the east end of the mountain range. We stopped for the night in Vernal, Utah, where we stayed in only our second commercial campground since the beginning of March, to do laundry and get drinking water. A bonus was having pizza delivered to our site and left on our picnic table, thus incurring minimal coronavirus risk. We continue to be very strict about COVID-19, entering buildings only a few times per month, and wearing masks even on hiking trails. All showers since mid-March have been accomplished via the outdoor hose on the camper; it has not been easy.

Polemonium f. foliosissima, above Trout Lake, San Juan Mountains, CO
Above: Jacob’s Ladder, Polemonium foliosissimum, San Juan Mountains, CO

The San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado are another distinct range within the Rockies, noted for their exceptional beauty, in part the result of extensive mineralization and a resulting colorful appearance. We spent 13 days within the San Juans, first camping east of Lizard Head Pass, south of Telluride. Here we spent six nights, on most days just walking along the dirt road from our site to photograph and sample the Rocky Mountain flora. We also did do one good higher-elevation hike, towards Hope Lake, reaching 11,500 feet. I identified an average of twenty or so plants each day, using multiple references. An identification could take anywhere from under a minute to over an hour, but a good average number would be fifteen minutes. After five days of this, I had identified about a hundred species, of which 19 were new, a high percentage. Leaving the Lizard Head Pass area, we stopped by the small but delightful San Miguel River South Fork Preserve, administered by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). It has a fine Narrowleaf Cottonwood (Populus angustifolia) and Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) riparian area along the river. A long day of driving south, then east, then north brought us to the next valley to the east, near Silverton, CO.

Youmg Yellow-bellied Marmot, South Mineral Creek, San Juan Mountains, CO
Above: Baby Yellow-bellied Marmot, San Juan Mountains, CO

We camped for four days in the South Mineral Creek area. The area was quite crowded, and the first night we just had to park on the side of the dirt road. We got a better site the next morning, and took a nice walk along a road and a trail, botanizing from 10,250 to 10,850 feet of elevation. Driving out the next morning to reach a trailhead, we had a flat tire. A wheel and tire together weigh about one hundred pounds, and the weight supported by a rear tire is about 3000 pounds, so changing a flat is hard work and typically takes an hour. While remounting the flat tire, Eileen’s index finger was caught between the wheel and the mount, causing a very painful injury, with considerable blood, swelling, and bruising. We drove out to Durango to an urgent care facility, where it was deemed to require only glue and not stitches to close the cut. Though the cut has nearly finished healing, almost three weeks later there is still some swelling and bruising evident.

Aconitum columbianum, South Mineral Creek, San Juan Mountains, CO
Above: Monkshood, Aconitum columbianum, San Juan Mountains, CO

The flat was not repairable, and though we still had perhaps five thousand miles left on the remaining tires, a Goodyear dealership gave us a good price on four new tires, so we had them all replaced (the tires on four-wheel-drive vehicles need to be fairly well-matched in diameter (and thus tread depth), to avoid damage to the drive train). We finally headed back to the Silverton area, but after an hour of driving, a tire pressure alarm went off, and we found that a tire valve they replaced was faulty. We camped right where we were, and reinflated the tire with our compressor in the morning, then headed back to Durango. The leak was bad enough that we had to stop once more to inflate the tire to reach the dealership, where they replaced the valve. By the time we got back to Silverton it was too late to do much, but we scouted out a road that led to a staging area for Bighorn Sheep, and also a road leading to a famous wildflower area, Porphyry Basin. Both roads were very narrow, with drop-offs but few pullouts. These roads, like most in the San Juan Mountains, are reasonable for quads, and marginal for small jeeps, but are not safe for trucks and other full-sized vehicles, because of the difficulties when two vehicles meet. It is pretty easy to rent jeeps and quads in the area, and would likely be worthwhile.

Aquilegia caerulea, Hope Lake Trail, San Juan Mountains, CO
Above: Blue Columbine, Aquilegia caerulea, San Juan Mountains, CO

After an aborted hike due to rain and poor trail conditions, we left South Mineral Creek and hoped we were leaving behind our streak of rather poor luck. On July 18 we got a reasonably early start on the much-anticipated hike to Bullion King Lake in Porphyry Basin. With the decision not to drive the road, this became a 6.5-mile hike, with 1500 feet of gain – starting at an elevation of 11,100 feet! But we had gotten reasonably acclimated during the last 2.5 weeks, and though it was quite a slog, we completed the hike and got our first exposure to true alpine habitat in Colorado. I officially declared it “an epic, righteous hike” in my notes, and we found ten new plant species and two new genera (!), with most of the interesting stuff above 12,300 feet of elevation. One trail description we saw claimed it was possible to see one hundred plant species on a slightly longer version of this hike, so we kept track and had about 93 species. I think the most we have ever had on a day hike is around 125 species, in the mountains of northern California.

Purplish Copper, South Mineral Creek, San Juan Mountains, CO
Above: Purplish Copper on Senecio, San Juan Mountains, CO

After a day spent keying plants, we headed north for a brief visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which we last saw in 1992. Given the heat, the crowds, and being a bit behind schedule, we just spent half a day on the south rim, and did not visit the north rim. This deep, dark rock canyon is interesting in part because it shows strong asymmetry due to differential rates of erosion on the two walls. The north wall (facing south) dries quickly because of its exposure to the sun, so is subject to little erosion, and maintains a nearly vertical face. In contrast, the south wall (facing north) is shadowed from the sun, and thereby retains moisture longer, which leads to greater erosion, causing its face to be markedly sloped.

Primula parryi, Porphyry Basin, San Juan Mountains, CO
Above: Primrose, Primula parryi, San Juan Mountains, CO

We spent the next eight nights camped north of Crested Butte, in central Colorado. The first night, the 20th, we had clear skies, so I went out about an hour after dusk to look for Comet NEOWISE. Viewing conditions were superb; just after stepping out of the lit interior of the camper, with no dark adaptation, I was immediately struck by the Milky Way, and turning to the northwest, the comet was instantly obvious above the pitch-black horizon of the nearby mountains! It was truly stunning in binoculars, with the long tail filling the field of view. We were thrilled to have seen it so well, and looked forward to seeing it nightly, but we did not have another clear night for the next week!

Water Pipit, Porphyry Basin, San Juan Mountains, CO
Above: Water Pipit with food for young, San Juan Mountains, CO

The town of Crested Butte has designated itself the wildflower capital of Colorado, and it’s not an unreasonable claim. There are many trails and roads providing access to a range of prime elevations, and there are a number of exposures of shale, a sedimentary rock that is not common in the Rockies, and which may help contribute to the diversity of plants and the intensity of the displays. We first hiked on the popular East River Trail, which is reached by good roads, has a smooth surface, gains almost no elevation, and has marvelous floral displays – what’s not to love? We had a great look at a weasel coming down the trail towards us; it was likely a Long-tailed. A large stand of a beautiful mariposa lily, Calochortus gunnisoni, was memorable. This hike is obligatory for anyone visiting the area.

Calochortus g. gunnisoni, East River Trail, Crested Butte, CO
Above: Mariposa Lily, Calochortus gunnisoni, Crested Butte, CO

Our second hike was on the Gunnison Pass Trail to Copley Lake. This was more strenuous, but the trail was good except for the first few hundred yards, which were steep and rocky. We had the pretty lake to ourselves for several hours, and enjoyed sightings of Evening Grosbeak, a fringed gentian (Gentiana thermalis), and the remarkable Corydalis casei , a tall native related to Bleeding Heart. Our third hike was on the Deer Creek Trail from the west; access was more difficult, the trail was degraded and inhabited by cattle, and it rained heavily the entire way back, so it was a less enjoyable day. Our last hike was from near Schofield Pass to the base of Cinnamon Mountain. The road going in, above Emerald Lake, had a substantial drop-off and was too narrow to permit passing a vehicle, so we were very glad not to meet anyone! Although we did not have time to reach the summit of Cinnamon Mountain, we did enjoy the walk very much, seeing a good variety of subalpine plants and a few truly alpine species around 11,500 feet elevation.

Yellow-bellied Marmot, Gunnison Pass Trail, Crested Butte, CO
Above: Calling Yellow-bellied Marmot, Crested Butte, CO

We had one scary incident while in Crested Butte. About a mile before reaching camp, less than half an hour after a long, steep descent from a high pass into the valley, we lost our brakes. I noticed that they seemed soft, and tested them several times over the course of a minute, while traveling just a few miles per hour on a fairly level stretch of road. Then the brake warning light came on (rather late in the game, in my opinion), and we lost braking action entirely. I went into four-wheel-drive low range, and locked it into first gear, to drive a few hundred yards to a place we could get off the road. I found the owner of the private property where we were parked, and she kindly gave us permission to camp there for a night. It took the whole morning to get a flatbed tow truck out, and the ride to the repair shop was lengthy, as the driver had to go very slowly on the rough road with such a heavy load (the truck and camper weigh 11,000 pounds). It turned out that a bracket on the rear differential had broken, allowing a metal brake line to flex, causing it to fail. The mechanic drove 1.5 hours to get new metal tubing, and then fashioned a new line using the fittings from the broken line. As this was all happening on a Friday afternoon, we really appreciated his successful effort to get the vehicle fixed before the weekend, so we were not stranded. So all ended well, but it is really too awful to contemplate what would have happened if the line had failed half an hour earlier.

One thought on “The Central Rockies, Part I

  1. That’s a little too scary and we are so happy it came with a happy ending!! I guess you can never anticipate when something like that might happen. Take care you two. Connee and Bob

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