Silverton – The Heart of the San Juan Mountains

August 31, 2015
Thunderstorms rocked the mountain tops around Creede this morning so we decided to take the day off.  Holli and I hustled to get laundry done, groceries purchased, and a good meal on Sunday night so today was our day to relax.
We toured the historical museum, visited a few local shops, and ate a lot of food while watching the storms pass over the mountains.  Creede has a rich mining history but tourism is the main economy today.

September 1, 2015

Holli and I met a fellow hiker from Texas yesterday.  Brad joined Holli and I on our ride back to the trailhead at San Luis pass.  Local trail angel, Debbie, picked up our trio at the Snow Shoe Lodge and drove us up the rugged forest road to the pass.  Shoe took us as far as Willow Creek and we walked the remaining two miles back to the Colorado Trail.
Snow Mesa was the featured obstacle to cross today. A steep climb out of the pass took us to near thirteen thousand feet, down 1,200, back up a thousand to finally lead us to Snow Mesa.  The Mesa is a six mile expanse of rolling alpine tundra that sits above 12,00o feet elevation.  The treeless expanse was bordered by rounded mountains to the north and fell into a deep canyon to the south.  Thousands of acres spread across the vast roof top of the world.  Jagged peaks of the San Juan mountains stretched across the western horizon miles away.
A flock of sheep covered a hillside to our right with the sheep herder standing guard.  A thunderhead with a vail of rain drifted along on our left.  Thunder rumbled on occasion and pushed Holli and I to cover ground faster but the Shepard stood his ground without flinching. His horse stood tall and brilliant against the green and gold tundra thought he was probably a mile or more away.
We covered the Mesa in a couple of hours and rain fell as we descended from the tundra back into spruce trees.  Spring Creek Pass was a thousand feet below us and soon could hear highway noise as trucks lumbered up the steep grade and crested the pass.
Brad, Holli, and I stopped at the trailhead and took advantage of the picnic tables for a late afternoon snack. Rain showers had moved on and a soft evening glow led us two and a half miles to our camp area.  Tree line was visible several hundred yards to the west and a cow moose grazed on the trail 50 yards away.  We decided to give her the trail for the night as we slipped into the woods to find a level spot for our tents.


  
September 2, 2015

We left the trees and began a near 30 mile stretch of alpine tundra hiking this morning.  The moose had left the area by morning sunlight filled the meadow that seemed so dark and mysterious the evening before.
The climb away from treeline was gradual and lifted us to the another broad Mesa with 360 degree views.  Clouds soon obscured the blue sky and again the hike became a race against thunder

We reached the high point of the Colorado Trail (13,271 feet above sea level) around noon after walking through rain, sleet, and hail for a few miles.  The sun appeared for awhile as we took a lunch break at the top and visited with a couple of section hikers.
We descended 500 feet from the high point but the trail stayed between 12,000 and 13,000 feet for the rest of the day.
We dropped into Carson Saddle as a thunderstorm passed to the south.  We took refuge next some old mining ruins as the storm rumbled across the towering peaks overhead.  We were back on the trail after a half our rest only to dodge another storm passing to our west a couple of miles later.
The magic of the trail once again revealed itself as we watched a group of five bull moose graze in the valley below us as we headed toward the final pass on our way to Cataract Lake and our camp area for the night.
We reached the pass as the storm moved away and thick gray clouds replaced the billowing thunderhead.  The warm air below the pass turned into a stiff damp wind as we descended into the valley and arrived at the lake.  We managed to cover 20 miles of rugged terrain in thin air and less than pleasant weather.  The scenery…well…some of the most outstanding I have every witnessed.


All downhill from here

 

Honing my meteorological skills

 

Cataract Lake

September 3, 2015

The alarm went off at 5:40 am as usual but I could tell through the tent walls that it was overcast.  I laid in my quilt trying to summon the strength to get up and tear down camp but the cold air kept me still.  A flash of lightning in the morning darkness added an edge of tension to the morning as well.  Lightning is serious enough in the trees but positively terrifying when you are at 12,000 plus feet and more than fifteen miles from treeline by trail.
Light rain pelted the tent and I knew our only option was to walk out way out of this.  We had camped near Brad and he agreed with our plan to keep moving despite the potential light show.
Lightning wasn’t an issue for the rest of the morning fortunately.  Thick gray clouds, fog, rain, and sleet pelted us as we worked our way around mountains and through passes.  The scenery was indescribable at every turn as fog gave way to towering mountains and deep valleys.  The perspective given by the inclement weather turned the rugged Colorado mountains into an alien world that seemed millions of miles from home.  Pictures in books or magazines could never capture the landscape we travelled through.  My cold, stinging fingers and shortness of breath were the reminders that I was a part of this.
The sky began to clear by early afternoon. The overcast sky kept the thunderstorm development at bay and I was unsure how to feel as the sun burned through the clouds.
Holli and I hiked with Brad for the rest of the day.  We passed another flock of sheep and marveled at the rugged terrain they were able to graze.  The Shepard looked on as the wooly critters swarmed the mountain top.
We covered another large expanse of rolling alpine tundra as we left the rugged peaks and headed toward the Animas River valley.  Thunder began to echo off of the distant peaks just as we topped 12,600 feet and began the long descent following Elk Creek.
We dropped for several miles into the canyon and back into the lush forest.  It had been more than 36 hours above treeline and the forest seemed like a long lost friend.  It was warmer too.


  
  

Elk Creek


September 4, 2015

The clearing sky was short lived as day broke with overcast skies.  I was penalized again for not breaking camp when the alarm went off and soon rail pelted the tent canopy.
We packed up the sleeping gear and put on our hiking clothes while eating a light breakfast in the tent.  The rain soon stopped and we packed up the wet tent and headed toward the Animas River crossing and Silverton eleven miles away.
Steady rain fell as we passed several tents of weekend hikers lining the trail.  The rain persisted for the next few hours as our feet had become waterlogged and the trail a mess of puddles and small streams of water.
We reached the river before noon and began the steep swithbacks on the far side.  The narrow gauge train whistled as we rose a thousand feet above the valley.  Fog cloaked the mountain tops as the train lumbered along deep in the river valley.
We reached the trailhead at the highway and tried to work our charm for a ride into Silverton.  Three muddy hikers were not appealing to most of the visitors at the trailhead so we resorted to the cell phone.  Within twenty minutes we had a ride. Jan at the Blair Street Hostel in Silverton came to our rescue.


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