Thursday, January 14, 2016

Bushwhacking to Burned Timber Mountain

I planned on hiking somewhere on Tuesday, January 5th.  The forecast seemed inconclusive for higher elevations so I sought out a trip closer to home.  The peaks close to my house in the Sangres were in and out of the clouds so I decided on a lower elevation trip. 

The Arkansas Hills rise north of the Arkansas River in the area that I live.  They ultimately stretch all the way north to Trout Creek Pass near Buena Vista.  Compared to the Sangre de Cristos, Sawatch, and Mosquito Ranges, the Arkansas Hills don't get much attention.  The highest summits are only around 11,000', compared to the 13 and 14,000' peaks of the other ranges.  Most of the Arkansas Hills are scrubby and wooded compared to the denser forests on the higher ranges.  Nonetheless, the Arkansas Hills  rise 3-4000' above the river at places.  While the Arkansas Hills see a fair amount of recreation where they rise above Salida, most of the range doesn't see too much traffic. 

Driving through Bighorn Sheep Canyon along the river every time I leave the house, I get a good chance to look at the hills.  A few of the mountains in the range caught my attention.  The first is Big Baldy Mountain, which is visible to the east of Salida and appears to have sections of meadow near its summit.  The other one that grabbed my attention recently is Burned Timber Mountain.  Burned Timber caught my eye mostly because it is the highest mountain in the section of the hills close to my house.  I can even see the mountain from my property.

Taking a good look at the Arkansas Hills, I decided to take a shot at 10,082' Burned Timber Mountain.  The southern slopes receive a lot of sun and had less snow than other parts of the range.  On a map, a road looks like it provides fairly easy access to Burned Timber from the east.  I was more interested in spending a few hours in the woods and bushwhacking from the south, just  a few minutes from my house.

On Tuesday, the 5th, I started hiking at 10AM.  The most convenient spot with public access appeared to be at the Howard Cemetery along the Arkansas River on County Road 45 at 6600' in elevation  A dry creek bed called Kiln Gulch heads toward Burned Timber.  Once closer to the mountain, my plan was to gain one of the ridges toward the summit.

I started hiking in the gulch but quickly followed the ridge above for better views.  Unfortunately my time on the ridge was short.  I approached private property and there were houses a short distance away.  I soon dropped back into the gulch.  There was a little more snow than I expected, but nothing too deep.  My travel was over a mix of snow and bare ground.

A large mine opening not too far from the road
Early view of Burned Timber, the high point is on the left
Rock spires near Kiln Gulch
Traveling away from the gulch up a loose slope
Another look at my target
To avoid steeper terrain later, I left the gulch.  I crossed a clearing that gave me a better look at my surroundings.  I took a couple of compass readings just in case.  Ahead was a ridge that climbed toward the main bulk of Burned Timber.  This route took me to the top of the partially open hilltop at 7700-7800', where I had a good view of my destination.  From this hill, I had a short drop to a saddle.  From the saddle, I was on one of the main ridges to my desired summit some 2500 vertical feet higher.

Crossing the clearing, the ridge I followed to the hilltop
is at the near right with Burned Timber in the distance
Traveling up a snowy slope to the 7700' hill
Looking at my destination from the small hill,
the higher point is actually the left summit
Rock outcroppings on a nearby ridge
The lower reaches of the ridge made for easy traveling.  The forest consisted of mostly pinyon and juniper with little underbrush to contend with.  The slope was south facing and most of the snow was avoidable.  Where the vegetation was more dense, the area seemed to be littered with game trails that followed the path of least resistance. 

Following a game trail on the main ridge
Lots of yucca throughout the hike
Picking my way through the path of least resistance 
Along the ridge, there were several steps where the terrain would hit a brief plateau before climbing steeply.  Before long, the easier travel ended.  The ridge became more rocky and was punctuated with rock outcroppings and cliffs.  For the most part the cliffs could be bypassed, however some scrambling was required.  The higher I climbed, the denser the groundcover became.  Several sections were easier to scramble and climb than to contend with dense vegetation.  Dense thickets of scrub oak became more common as I climbed.

Approaching rock outcroppings and cliffbands along the ridge
A cave along the ridge, it actually went in fairly deep and turned
back deeper under the rocks
Jumbles of rock along the ridge
Interesting formation of sandy rock
My route up traversed this ledge, one
of the more technical sections to negotiate
The rock outcroppings were a nice change of pace.  Although they slowed my travel, they offered nice views.  Up until this point, I was generally traveling through woods and had somewhat limited views.  Directly across the valley I had the summits northern Sangres mostly visible when they weren't hiding behind clouds.  The Twin Sisters, the summits that I often mention because they are just a few miles above my house, were the most dominating feature since they stand in front of the main crest of the Sangres.  The Cottonwood Group peeked out from the clouds occasionally to the southeast.  The southern Sawatch Range stayed mostly clear of the clouds with the peaks around Mt Shavano and Antero dominating the view. 

Looking into the Howard area
Looking toward Howard from a higher vantage point
The northern Sangre de Cristos
The Twin Sisters are the pointy peaks
in the center
Close up of the Twin Sisters
I live just beyond the large snowy field
Clouds hugging the tops of the mountains
Big Baldy Mountain with the Sawatch Range beyond
In one section of the rocky ridge I had my first mishap of the day.  I hit a stretch that required scrambling.  Unfortunately, dense trees stood in the way of my immediate path.  I held back a branch as I hoisted myself up the three foot step.  The branch snapped and I fell on the jagged rock directly on the point of my hip.  I took a few seconds to catch my breath before continuing.  As I write this almost a week later, my hip is still tender.  The fall could have been worse.  The branches of the tree kept me from falling on my side another several feet to uneven rocks.  Despite the discomfort, I continued and the throbbing became less intense as I walked.

As I climbed, I faced more outcroppings.  I was able to skirt around sections that required excessive scrambling however.  The ridge was filled with numerous false summits.  Just as the end appeared in sight, I would reach the what appeared to be the highpoint and see another stretch of ridge.

Approaching another rock outcropping
Another look at the rock outcropping
A cliff band near the ridge
After several false summits, I hit the roughest section of the ridge.  It wasn't particularly steep.  The problem was the extremely dense scrub oak.  I was constantly tangled or getting clothes caught on the branches. My hat would get pulled off by a branch or the cord on my jacket snagged.  After about three hours, I reached a clearing and the end of the serious climbing.

Getting into thick scrub oak
The dense brush ended and I was in a meadow mixed with pockets of trees.  I was around 10,000' in elevation and the snow was probably knee deep.  I couldn't see where the actual summit stood.  There was a slight incline ahead but the tree cover hid any obvious high point.  Because of tree cover, my best views were along the open ridge that I already traversed.  A lower subpeak, Point 9701, appeared much more promising for summit views.  I felt that it would be risky hitting the subpeak with enough time for the bushwhack back to my car.  I wanted to allow extra time just in case I veered off course.  I didn't want to find my way back out without any trails in the dark.

Open meadow near the summit and knee deep snow teeming with
deer or elk tracks
(hard to tell since they weren't fresh)
After three hours of bushwhacking with no trail, I found a well packed track on the top in the clearing.  I'm guessing it ultimately led to the road not too far below the eastern side of the mountain.  It looked like it may have headed toward the subpeak as well.  I followed it half way to the subpeak.  I was able to make decent time on the packed track.  I still think time was a factor and didn't want to add distance to my bushwhack.  I descended into a gully and headed directly toward the ridge that I climbed since it still appeared to be the path of least resistance.

Near the summit looking at the subpeak  (Peak 9701)
My path through the gully started out without much trouble.  As I reached the low point of the gully, I faced the worst scrub oak of the hike.  I had to force my way through the tangles.  At one point my poles got tangled in the mess and  they tripped me.  I don't know what I fell on, but whatever it was got me directly in the shin.  I had a nice scrape along half of my shin that was painful.  In the process I bent a section of my hiking pole.  The rest of the hike it seemed like all the brush I passed through managed to slap me in the tender scrape on my shin.  This hike has lots of yucca on the ground which is fairly sharp.  I managed to have every yucca I passed poke me in the wounded shin as well.

Bushwhacking through the harsh scrub oak
I eventually made it back to my ridge.  Generally travel was easier since as I was heading downhill.  My downhill travel did make it difficult to see the cliffs from above along the ridge however.  I had a few difficult downclimbs in the rockiest  section of the ridge.  Traveling down the ridge also had the benefit of the views toward the mountains across the valley and toward Salida most of the way.  Once below the cliff bands and outcroppings, I made good time.  I finally made it to the saddle between the ridge and the 7800' hill.  I was happy to see my tracks in the snow from earlier confirming that I was on the right path.
Looking across the valley on much of my route during  the descent
The Cottonwood group of the Sangres
Sawatch Range including 14ers Shavano and Antero
13,651' Taylor Mountain
Twin Sisters
Descending the ridge
Contending with rock outcroppings and cliffs
I was able to retrace my footsteps to the top of the 7800' hill.  From the top of the hill I had a good line of sight toward Kiln Gulch, my route back to the road.  Unlike my hike in, when I reached the gulch, I followed it all the way to the road.  The gulch proved to be interesting with numerous rock features rising out of the dry watercourse.  I reached my car just before 4PM.

Tree cholla
Close up of southern Sawatch, you can see the Angel of Shavano
if you click to enlarge
One last look at Burned Timber on my way out
Traveling through the gulch
The gulch was a mix of snow and dry ground
Wide section of the gulch
Interesting lone boulder in the gulch about 15 foot tall
Continuing in the gulch
Large outcropping above gulch rising about 100' or so
Another neat rock feature
Sun setting over one of the Twin Sisters
The gulch narrows near its mouth
I really enjoyed this outing.  Despite a couple of bumps and scrapes it was a fun trip.  I often travel in alpine terrain.  This hike still offered fine views of high alpine summits but traveled through scrubbier terrain with desert vegetation.   This hike is not exactly on the radar.  Sometimes it's just fun to pick a point and go for it, making up your own route along the way.

Since I was traveling without trails I don't know the exact distance of the hike.  From the cemetery in Howard to the summit is about 3.5 miles as the crow flies.  I didn't travel in a straight line so I covered more distance, I would guess more than 8 miles total.  The total elevation gain was around 3500'.

Traveling in this area would probably not be ideal in summer.  The area thrives with desert vegetation.  Most of the cacti were brown and dormant this time of year.  In summer it would be a different story.  Surprisingly there were cacti nearly all the way to 10,000'.  The lower reaches, particularly in the gulch, seem like good rattlesnake habitat in the summer.  This side of the mountain gets full sun exposure with little shade as well.

This type of hiking probably isn't for everyone.  A little know how in off-trail travel is helpful.  The ability to use a map and compass is definitely an asset.  I was able to get a good idea of my route before I left by studying a topo map.

Growing up in Pennsylvania I enjoyed bushwhacking quite a bit.  The hardwood forests usually made for decent off-trail travel.  Living in Maine, I would bushwhack from time to time.  Thicker forests made off-trail travel difficult however.  Many places the forests were too dense.  Now living in Colorado, I find myself traveling off-trail quite a bit.  Above treeline, off-trail travel is fairly easy with endless lines of sight.   The lower terrain is often desert-like with good lines of sight and scrubbier vegetation.  If you ever want the outdoors to yourself, bushwhacking and off-trail travel is a great way to find your own private wilderness.

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