Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Cross Country Skiing the North Fork of the South Arkansas River

Up until Christmas, most of the lower elevations around Salida were mostly free of snow.  A fair amount of snow fell the past week starting on Christmas night.  With high avalanche danger in most higher mountainous areas,  it seemed like a good time to cross country ski at some lower elevations.

I haven't cross country skied since I moved to Colorado.  When living in Maine I cross country skied quite frequently and was eager to explore some areas in Colorado by ski.  I didn't really know where to ski and got some suggestions.  One that sounded good was skiing along the North Fork of the South Arkansas River.  I was told it offered good mountain views without any real avalanche danger and decent skiing terrain.  Best of all, it's not too far from Salida.

The route I followed started at the Angel of Shavano Campground.  The road is plowed to the campground.  Beyond the campground is Forest Service Road 240.  In the summer this is a four wheel drive road that follows the river, more of a small mountain stream, to a couple of alpine lakes.  The route follows the river below 14ers Shavano and Tabeguache and sits below many other 12 and 13000 foot peaks.  In the winter the road isn't plowed making it a nice place to ski.  The trailhead sits at a fairly low 9160' in elevation and the end of the road climbs to Billings Lake at 11800' or so.

I originally planned to ski it on New Year's Eve.  I woke up that morning to -14F and decided to wait a day with warmer temps.  The temperature was hovering around zero when I started on New Year's Day the next morning.  As I passed through Salida, just the summit of Shavano was barely obscured by the clouds.  By the time I reached the trailhead, it started snowing.  The forecast wasn't calling for snow until afternoon but it was just flurries at this point.

The first quarter mile was rough.  Someone attempted to take a wheeled vehicle in the deep snow and chewed up the snow pretty badly.  Luckily they couldn't make it too far and the trail was in better shape after the vehicle turned around.  The route is uphill almost the entire way but very gradual.  I was breaking trail the whole way but it wasn't very deep.  As I continued the snow began to fall fairly hard.

Ski tracks in virgin snow
Skiing through section of aspens
Because of the snow I never did get to enjoy any of the scenery I heard about in the area.  The snow was getting quite heavy and the wind was starting to pick up.  At times it was near whiteout conditions.  Although I was in the woods, I would pass through the occasional clearing and really get hit with wind.  After two hours of skiing, I reached the Shavano Townsite, an old mining settlement from the 1880s.  Shavano Townsite sits at 10750' feet or so. The conditions were not getting any better and I decided to turn around after 4.5 miles.  I had climbed nearly 1600 feet in the 4.5 miles but it never felt too steep.

Shavano Townsite
Remnants of an old cabin at Shavano
As I returned, my route was almost entirely downhill.  It was snowing hard enough that my tracks were almost completely covered.  I was skiing into the wind and it was quite chilly.  Because it was downhill, I made it back to the trailhead in about an hour.  The total trip was about 9 miles with snowbreaking most of the way.

The result of skiing in the heavy snow
By Monday, warmer weather was moving into the Salida area.  With temps forecasted to reach 50 this week, I wanted to ski this route again in clear weather while the snow was still decent.  A friend skied it over the weekend and told me a snowcat tracked out the trail making for faster conditions. 

I had a couple of setbacks Monday morning before I returned to ski the North Fork again.  I made it about 5 minutes from home before turning back to pick up a prescription that needed to be filled for one of our dogs. Right before our driveway, I had to pull over to let another car pass.  I pulled too far over into the deep snow and got stuck.  I ran back to the house to get Puma, who just got home from an overnight shift.  I wasn't stuck too badly and I figured we could use Puma's car to pull my car out of the deep snow. That went smoothly and I was quickly back on my way.  I at least got to see a herd of elk not too far from the house for my troubles.

Elk running in a field not too far from our house
After the setbacks, I made it to the trailhead about 830AM with fairly clear skies.  It was around 30F when I left my house so it wasn't too cold but it was quite windy.  From the start, the route was packed down by a snowcat and at least a couple of snowmobiles.  I made better time traveling the groomed path and made it to the Shavano Site in about 90 minutes.  Generally the snow was slightly hard but not icy.  Most of the powder blew off the trail.  There were a couple of thin spots where the snow blew off the trail with a couple of short patches with rocks but nothing that couldn't be avoided.

Conditions were a little thin at places
With clear skies, I was treated to nice scenery from the start.  In the beginning I could see the rocky shoulders of Shavano and Tabeguache to my right.  As I climbed the scenery got better with more open views toward 13ers Mt Aetna and Mt Taylor.

Much clearer my second trip to the North Fork
Lower reaches of either Shavano or Tabeguache
Spire below Shavano
Distant peaks coming into view
Above the Shavano Site the road became slightly steeper and the snow choppier.  The trail had more wind above that point causing the snow to be more scoured and the snowmobile tracks more prominent.  Along the way the route passed the North Fork Reservoir and a forest service campground.  Since the lake is completely snow covered, I didn't stop and continued on to Billings Lake.  Just before Billings Lake the route broke out above treeline and became steeper.

The views got better as I skied higher
There were decent views most of the way
Most of the summits along this stretch are over 12 and 13000 feet
Looking at a ridge of Mt Aetna 
The views got bigger as I climbed
Getting close to treeline
At treeline the views were incredible.  The route entered a huge alpine basin with phenomenal mountain scenery.  I headed toward the lake which was hidden by snow.  At this point the snow was extremely deep and I had difficulty skiing with no real trail to follow.  This was basically the end of the line for travel without getting into excessively steep terrain.  I was just shy of 12000 feet and had skied about 8 miles.

Reaching treeline near Billings Lake
Pomeroy Mountain and connecting peak
Looking across the alpine basin around Billings Lake
I believe the peak on the right is Sewanee Peak
Close up of Sewanee
I think this is Mt Taylor  13651'and Mt Aetna 13746'
Looking back down the North Fork
Sewanee Peak and PT 13147
Before returning back down the valley, I took my time taking pictures and enjoying the scenery.  It was quite windy above treeline with winds gusting to near 40MPH so I didn't linger too long.  The ski back to the trailhead descended more than 2600 vertical feet in 8 miles and was quite quick.  It took 3 hours to reach Billings Lake and just over an hour to return to the trailhead.  The skiing on the descent was a little tricky because of the choppy snow but not overly technical with a fairly wide route to maneuver.  The biggest challenge was not getting distracted by the views as I skied fairly quickly downhill.

My tracks across the open alpine basin
Looking back toward my descent
Another look toward Taylor and Aetna
Snow blowing below looking toward Taylor
Starting to descend at the steepest section
The trail is a little more visible as I left treeline

Big views on the descent
Hard to pay attention to the trail as I descended
with the fine views
Above Shavano the views were pretty consistent
16 miles later, with 2600 feet of climbing and descending, I was back at the trailhead.  This was by far the most scenic place I traveled on cross country skis.  While there were some nice views skiing in the east, nothing came close to the big mountain views on this trip.  By the time I got to the car, the snow was getting a little sticky as the temperature warmed to the 40s.  I'm sure I will return to ski this area again this season.

Another look at Sewanee
Plenty of big views near Billings Lake
PT 13147 on the left
Blowing snow below

1 comment:

  1. Even more incredible than I expected after hearing the story from you on yesterday's hike. By your photos of the lower section, an awful lot of snow had blown off in the day between my & your trips. Thanks for the photos, story, and Wow, I need to get up to that basin!