Sunday, December 18, 2016

Hiking Browns Canyon National Monument

Browns Canyon is best known as a popular whitewater rafting destination on the Arkansas River.  Nearly two years ago, the 21,000 acres surrounding Browns Canyon  received status as a National Monument.  After the area became a National Monument, I decided to check it out. After looking into the recreation at the Monument, I discovered a small trail system on the protected land.

The National Monument lies just east of the Arkansas River between Salida and Buena Vista in the settlement of Nathrop.  Rising from the river are the Arkansas Hills, the low set of mountains that run east of the river in this area.  These hills are far overshadowed by much loftier mountains but offer some nice recreation and scenery.

I first attempted a hike in the area last March.  I unfortunately didn't get very far.  As the trail followed a gulch, it disappeared in the sand.  Snow covered the ground in the shadows of the gulch, further obscuring the route.  I never found the trail where it exited the gulch.  I settled for a shorter hike to the river.

This week I decided to give the area another shot.  The lower elevations of the Arkansas Hills close to the river had little to no visible snow compared to the higher elevations.  Gusty winds lessened the appeal of traveling to higher elevations.  It seemed like a good time to revisit the National Monument.  

There isn't anything in the way of facilities at Browns Canyon National Monment.  The trailhead has a few signs with a map and information about wildlife and that's it.  I started at the only official trailhead on the north end of the Monument at the Ruby Mountain BLM parking area.

Approaching the trailhead
There are only a few trails at Browns Canyon.  The Turret Trail is the main trail that traverses the Monument from north to south.  Accessed from the Turret Trail, the Catkin Gulch Loop climbs away from the river into the Monuments interior.  In addition, there are a couple trails that access the river from the Turret Trail.  My plan was to explore the Catkin Gulch Loop to see the interior parts of the Monument, then take one of the side trails to the river. Click on map for reference while reading the post for a better idea of the area's layout.

Traveling through the Nathrop area, it's very easy to view some great scenery.  The 14,000' peaks of the Collegiate Peaks tower just to the west.  These views are pretty much continuous from the trailhead at the Monument as well.  The Turret Trail climbs from the trailhead through typical jumbled, rocky terrain in a sparse pinyon forest.  Collegiate Peak 14ers Mt Princeton, Mt. Yale, and Mt. Columbia are constant companions to the west.  The Buffalo Peaks, the twin 13,000' summits at the southern end of the Mosquito Range are often visible as well.  A few spots offer views to the northern end of the Sangre de Cristos, just south of Salida.

Mt Princeton from near the trailhead
An early view of Mt Yale
The Buffalo Peaks
Clouds covering the the peaks around Mt Ouray
The northern Sangre de Cristos with 13er Hunts
Peak in the center
After a mile of small ups and downs, the trail reaches the dry, sandy bed of Little Cottonwood Creek.  By following the creek, it's possible to reach the river in a short distance.  The Turret Trail leaves the creek bed before reaching the river at an easy to miss intersection.

Typical rocky terrain
Mt Yale in the distance over a cliffband
Climbing out of Little Cottonwood Creek, the Turret Trail enters an open area for another mile or so.  From the clearing, the views are continuous and expansive.  The view stretches from Antora Peak at the southern end of the Sawatch Range to Mt Columbia.  Unfortunately, just across the river lies an RV or trailer park in Nathrop at this point.  The structures are only visible for a short distance and  Nathrop is easy to overlook with the fine scenery beyond.

Entering the open area after Little Cottonwood Creek
Mt Columbia in the distance beyond a prominent
trailside rock outcropping
The Buffalo Peaks in the distance
Collegiate Peaks 14ers Mt Princeton, Mt Yale, and Mt
Columbia from left to right
Mt Princeton
14er Mt Antero
The Turret Trail leaves the clearing and travels up the dry Middle Cottonwood Creek.  This is where I lost the trail in the snow when I was here in March.  Since the the creek bed is so sandy, there is often no tread but the route is obvious.  After traveling up the creek bed for 10 minutes or so, a small cairn marked the trail's exit from the bed.  This junction is easy to miss.

Traveling up dry Middle Cottonwood Creek
The Turret Trail generally climbs most of the way to the junction of the Catkin Gulch Loop and moves further away from the river.  The landscape becomes more rocky and jumbled as the trail climbs into a more wild setting..  Numerous rock outcroppings dot the landscape.  I reached the Catkin Gulch Loop fairly quickly.

The Buffalo Peaks beyond nearby rocky terrain
A prominent rock outcropping
Traveling along the Turret Trail
The Catkin Gulch Loop (actually a lollipop loop) is marked with a sign and easy to follow at the start.  From the Turret Trail there is a single trail leading to the actual loop after a mile or so.  The surrounding terrain is increasingly rocky as the trail travels close to several prominent rock outcroppings as it gradually climbs.

Junction for the Catkin Gulch Loop
Passing by an interesting rock outcropping
Looking at the jumble of rock in the interior
part of the National Monument
Another rock outcropping
I decided to travel the loop clockwise.  Traveling clockwise, the trail quickly entered another dry creek bed.  I reached a small cairn where the trail tread disappeared. The creek bed lacked an actual trail as the route followed the sandy bed.  It was in this stretch that I spooked a cow elk in the distance. As the trail climbs, it reaches the eastern boundary of the National Monument.

Traveling up a wide creek bed on the Catkin Gulch Loop
The route finding becomes tricky an the boundary.  The sandy creek bed splits just before the boundary, which is marked by a fence.  The wider, more obvious path, continues straight to a gap in the fence.  I followed this path and entered a narrow gulch filled with ice, that quickly became tough to negotiate.  I retraced my steps and followed the less obvious path.  This led to the boundary line fence.  The other side of the fence appeared to have a possible trail.  A short distance to the south, along the fence, I spotted a gate.

Leaving the National Monument boundary
East of the boundary, the route left the National Monument and briefly entered the San Isabel National Forest.  I continued to follow the sandy bed since there isn't really a trail at this point.  Old ATV tracks were visible in the sand.  The creek bed had several branches.  I stuck to the right side, knowing that the route eventually veered toward this direction.

I soon reached  a couple of faint ATV tracks on possible trails that headed my direction.  These tracks were not on my map, but I took the track that seemed to be headed more in my intended direction.  I eventually reached a gate back at the National Monument Boundary which seemed to verify I was on the proper route.

The south side of the Catkin Gulch Loop featured better scenery than the northern side of the loop.  The trail traveled close to numerous, interesting outcroppings.  The south side offered consistent, great views toward the Sawatch Range peaks as well.

The Mt Shavano group beyond a prominent rock outcropping
Mt Ouray area
Mt Yale beyond nearby rocky terrain
If I hiked the loop again, I would probably travel counterclockwise next time.  The route seems like it would be easier to follow with less confusion hiking counterclockwise.  Locating the proper exit of the dry creek bed may be a challenge though since it is marked with a tiny, easy to miss, cairn.
Another interesting outcropping by the trail
Close up of the most prominent rock outcropping
on the route
Mt White left, Mt Antero right
Mt Columbia
Not too far from the Catkin Gulch Loop is a trail (Trail 6045B on the map) that leads to the river.  Since the river is a key part of the National Monument, I decided to check it out.  Trail 6045B is another dry creek bed and not so much a trail.  Just follow the sandy creek bed downhill and you'll eventually reach the river.  After a mile or so and twenty minutes later, I reached the river, although it seemed longer traveling in the deep sand in the creek bed.  Unfortunately, none of the trails actually take you to the actual Browns Canyon, which is primarily visited by raft on the river.

Heading towards the river on Trail 6045B

Mt Princeton looming above the trail in the distance
More rock outcroppings along Trail 6045B
A rocky hillside along the trail
The first glance of the Arkansas River
Just to the north of Trail 6045B is another river access trail, Trail 6045A.  No connection exists between the two trails however.  Although it is not recommended on the official National Monument map, I decided to travel off trail and connect the two trails.  Because the river level was at its low autumn flow, travel was quite easy.  Most of the time I could travel along the bare river bank,  occasionally leaving the shoreline where necessary.  I reached Trail 6045A after twenty minutes or so while enjoying the river's rippling sound.  In higher water conditions this would be much harder since travel over a steep and rocky hillside would be necessary.
I traveled along the river bank
Mt Princeton above the river
An easy section of travel along the river
Riverside rock outcroppings
One of the rougher section along the river, but
still fairly easy to bypass the worst sections
A good look at Mt Princeton above the river
The view downstream before I left the river banks
Trail 6045A connects back to the Turret Trail after a short distance.  From the Turret Trail I retraced my route back to the trailhead.  Less than a mile from the trailhead, I saw the only other hiker I would see for the day.  My total route was between 11 and 12 miles.  Despite the distance, the hike only took about 4 1/2 hours.  The hike doesn't have significant elevation gain allowing for a good pace.  The biggest challenge was hiking through the many dry creek beds.  They were often filled with loose sand which makes for tougher hiking.  It's also quite useful to have a good topographic map if traveling on the Catkin Gulch Loop.  The route isn't obvious at several  spots and it would be easy to miss a turn.
This rocky hillside is just above the river bank that I followed
Looking up a dry gulch along Trail 6045A
Higher peaks above a sea of rocky terrain 
Mt Columbia in the distance
Plenty of hoodoos and rock outcroppings
in the northern part of the National Monument
While this region has no shortage of great destinations, Browns Canyon National Monument is worth a visit. The lower elevations of the area are dry and receive a fraction of the snow compared to the higher mountains.  This makes it a good place to visit when the higher elevations are under deep snow or if the winds are gusty.  The Arkansas Hills are a worthwhile recreation destination with desert like features and interesting rocky terrain.  The location of Browns Canyon National Monument features good scenery and offers grandstand views of the lofty Sawatch Range and Collegiate Peaks.   The National Monument is just a short distance from both Buena Vista and Salida and makes for a nice outing.

Mt Yale Close up
Mt Princeton close up

For more information on Browns Canyon National Monument click on the link Friends of Browns Canyon

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