Sunday, July 15, 2018

Backpacking the West Elk Wilderness

There is no shortage of backcountry destinations that are well known in Colorado.  One that is not very well known is the West Elk Wilderness.  The West Elk Wilderness contains more than 176,000 acres, making it the fifth largest Wilderness in the state.  The area contains more than 200 miles of trails.

Why is such a large Wilderness overlooked?  Located just a short distance from Gunnison and Crested Butte, the area is overshadowed by better known destinations.  The Elk Range, containing the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and the iconic Maroon Bells as well as numerous other 14,000' peaks is not too far to the north.  The stunning San Juan Range is to the south with a vast alpine area and numerous 14,000' peaks.  The Uncompahgre Wilderness lies in the northern end of the San Juans.  East of Gunnison and Crested Butte stands the Sawatch Range with the densest concentration of 14,000' summits in the US as well as the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and the three highest peaks in Colorado.

Surrounded by such iconic destinations, it's understandable why the West Elks may not get as much attention.  They only contain one summit over 13,000' after all.  I had never heard of the area before moving to Colorado.  I only discovered them by chance when looking at a map of the Crested Butte and Aspen area trails.  The abundance of trails and remoteness caught my attention.  A search on the internet, didn't provide much information.  It was obvious the place is overlooked.

What little bit I did find on the West Elk Wilderness caught my attention.  It's size and trail mileage was a good start.  The handful of photos showed some nice looking country.  All accounts highlighted the lack of crowds in the Wilderness.  There were enough trails, 200+ miles, to put together a lengthy trip with potential for loops.  I put a trip to the West Elks on my list a couple of years ago, but never made it to the area.

This year I was determined to put in several Colorado backpacking trips.  With an early summer this year, I was able to get in my first alpine trip in the beginning of July.  With an abundance of visitors in the Colorado mountains during the week of Independence Day, the promise for minimal crowds put the West Elk Wilderness at the top of my list.

I looked over my map of the West Elk Wilderness and put together a 50 mile loop.  I based my loop around West Elk Peak and the surrounding summits.  This allowed me to have some travel time above treeline, and take in the scenery around the West Elk's most prominent feature, the Castles.  On the morning of July 1st, I headed just north of Gunnison to start my trip.

Hot air balloon over Gunnison on my drive 
I started my trip at the Mill Creek Trailhead.  This provided fairly easy access to the Wilderness.  This seemed to be a popular trailhead, since it provided direct access to the Castles and Storm Pass.  These are two of the few areas that seem to get dayhike traffic.  I arrived at the trailhead and began hiking about 840AM.

Since my loop ended on the Little Mill Creek Trail, I started at the lowest trailhead, about .4 miles from the end of Little Mill Creek Trail.  There are numerous spots along the road up until the gate at the end of the Mill-Castle Trailhead.  My trip started with a over a mile walk on the dirt Forest Service road leading to the gate at the beginning of the Mill-Castle Trail.

The views started along the road

The actual Mill-Castle Trail starts at a gate.  This seems to be the most popular destination in the entire Wilderness.  There were at least 10 cars parked near the gate.  After a mile the trail officially enters the Wilderness.  At the lower reaches, the hiking is fairly easy on a wide trail.  There is one creek crossing of Mill Creek that could be crossed without getting my feet wet.  Despite traveling through the forest, the trail enters numerous meadows with nice views of ridges topped with rocky spires on both sides of the trail.

At the start of the Mill-Castle Trail

This ridge, similar to the Castles is called Castle View
Crossing of Mill Creek



The views are good in the meadows

Entering the Wilderness

Both sides of the Mill Creek basin feature formations

The views are nearly continuous in the lower basins

This is the south side of the basin opposite Castle View

The area has volcanic origin

The formations line the entire basin

The ridges with the formations are miles long
The easy trail gives way to steeper climbing.  The trail ultimately climbs 3500' from the trailhead to the top of Storm Pass.  Numerous switchbacks keeps the climbing manageable most of the time.  Most of the trail travels near the creek.  At one point the trail passes close to a nice waterfall situated in a canyon.  There were several seasonal runoff waterfalls along the trail as well.  As I gained elevation, views of the alpine terrain ahead became more frequently.  The trail continued to pass through numerous meadows with wildflowers.

Nice waterfall in Mill Creek

A runoff waterfall near the main waterfall

Wildflowers

Views in the upper meadows

The trail finally leaves the trees for good enroute to Storm Pass.  The trail was generally in good shape up to this point.  Above treeline, the trail traveled through dense sections of willows.  The trail tread was still visible, I just had to push through the vegetation.  The dense willows gave way to more open terrain.  The final push to Storm Pass traversed a grassy slope via several switchbacks on a faint trail.

Thick vegetation blocking the trail

These columbines were several feet tall

The trail above treeeline

Nice alpine scenery

The trail growing fainter in the tundra

There was a vast area of tundra in the upper Mill Creek Basin

Approaching Storm Pass

After 8.5 miles or so of hiking, I reached Storm Pass.  Storm Pass sits around 12,500' and was the high point of my loop.  There are far reaching views toward the Elk and Sawatch Ranges from the pass.  The best view from Storm Pass is toward the Castles.  The Castles are rock spires atop a ridge of cliffs and are of volcanic origin.  The Castles are just across the drainage to the north and the pass has a great view of the formation.

The view from Storm Pass

The Castles

Herd path above Storm Pass

Even though the morning started off cool, the sun was intense and the hiking rather hot.  There wasn't much of a breeze below treeline.  It was refreshing above treeline where it felt some 20 degrees cooler and there was a nice breeze.

A few lingering snow patches

Close up of the Castles

Up until this point I passed several groups of backpackers leaving the Wilderness.  I passed one other pair of dayhikers below treeline that were climbing toward Storm Pass.  There was one other pair with a dog at Storm Pass.  It was a Sunday, just days before Independence Day after all.  This was one of the most popular and scenic trails in the Wilderness, and I'm guessing, one of the few that sees day hikers.  These were the only people I would pass close enough to talk with the entire trip.

View from Storm Pass

Tomcat at Storm Pass

I dropped down the north side of Storm Pass, continuing on the Mill-Castle Trail.  The trail is quite loose and I slipped a few times on the initial descent.  The trail faded quickly however and became more grassy with poorly defined tread.  For the most part the trail was always visible, just faint, particularly above treeline.  The trail made its way back below treeline as it followed close to South Castle Creek most of the descent. On the hillsides above, there were several more runoff waterfalls dropping down the rocky slopes.  Wildflowers lined the trail in many places.  Good views of the Castles, now above the trail, continue much of the descent.

Dropping off of Storm Pass

Not a bad view on the descent

Very faint trail north of Storm Pass

Dropping toward South Castle Creek
Getting closer to the Castles



Waterfall on South Castle Creek

Wildflowers taking over the trail

Lupines

Storm Pass is the far left side of the frame

Anthracite Range in the distance

One of many runoff waterfalls

Near the north end of the Mill-Castle Trail, the trail exits the Wilderness.  At lower elevations, the trail enters several larger meadows with good views.  The lower reaches of the Castle's ridge features cliffs and more spires.  I passed by a nice sized pond at the edge of  a meadow that featured these cliffs and spires as a backdrop.  The unnamed pond was barely visible on the map but looked like a nice place to camp.  From the meadows, there were nice views ahead of the Anthracite Range as well.

Spires further down the Castles ridge

This cliff is the end of the ridge containing the Castles

The trail was more visible lower with nice scenery

Looking back at the Castles

Trail along a meadow

The scenery was nearly continuous

I finally reached the end of the Mill-Castle Trail after 13 or so miles of hiking.  I had a short distance to travel on the Lowline Trail.  There were several junctions in this area.  While they all had signs, none of them showed trail names, just landmarks.  They were somewhat vague and would be difficult to travel by without a map.  Now outside of the Wilderness Boundary, there was also an area of outfitter tents visible not too far off the trail.  This area isn't too far from an access point into the Wilderness and an Outfitter uses the area as a basecamp and accommodations.

Unnamed pond

Looking back toward West Elk Peak over unnamed pond

Ground cover obscuring the trail

Cliffs along the Castles ridge

The Anthracite Range 

Another look at the Anthracite Range

The trail crossed Castle Creek in this stretch.  Although not deep, it did require a short, easy ford.  I took off my shoes and socks since it wasn't a very difficult ford.  While waiting for my legs to dry, I took a longer break by the creek.  I ate my lunch and filled my water.  It was fairly warm in the meadow by the creek, so I splashed myself with some water to cool down.

Ford of Castle Creek

I was only on the Lowline Trail for a few tenths of a mile before hitting my next trail,  the Castle Creek Trail.  There are a series of unmarked junctions along the Lowline in this area.  The Castle Creek Trail follows the creek, and the route is fairly obvious.  As long as you head toward the creek, you'll hit the proper route.  Eventually, I did see a sign that confirmed I was heading toward Castle Pass, my destination.  Almost immediately after leaving the Lowline Trail, the route enters back into the West Elk Wilderness.  I could see someone off the trail, fishing in the creek.  This was the last person I would see the rest of the trip.

Lowline Trail

The Castles from the end of Castle Creek Trail

The Castle Creek Trail travels through a meadow, not to far from the creek.  There are beautiful views for the duration of travel in the meadow.  The north side of the Castles and the alpine terrain of West Elk Peak and its northern ridge make for a nice horizon for several miles.

 A closeup of the Castles from Castle Creek
Part of West Elk Peak



The Castles and West Elk Peak

The Castles 

Castle Creek

The trail eventually enters the forest more frequently before leaving the meadows and views all together.  The trail climbs over a series of switchbacks through the forest before eventually reaching 11,000 foot Castle Pass after three miles on the Castle Creek Trail.  The pass is unfortunately heavily forested and viewless.

Castle Pass

The west side of the pass enters a grassy clearing and the trail is barely visible.  Soon the trail reenters the forest and is generally easier to follow, although faint at times.  Nice camping areas can be found where the trail passes an unnamed pond.  In the lower elevations of the Castle Creek Trail, the route passes through large aspen groves.  Cliffs on the western side West Elk Peak come into view as the trail approaches its end.  Several meadows and ponds along the trail offer nice scenery.  Several of the ponds are choked with weeds.

The trail disappeared after Castle Pass for a short distance

Unnamed pond along Castle Creek Trail

By now,  after 6PM, the day was fading into evening.  Mountains to the west blocked the sun during much of my descent.  With numerous creeks and a few ponds, I encountered mosquitoes.  The mosquitoes weren't so pesty to the point that they buzzed around my head.  They managed to find the backs of my arms and would occasionally bite through my shirt.  They were just pesty enough to let me know of their presence.

Backside of the West Elk Group

At the end of the Castle Creek Trail, I reached a junction with vague signage.  The junction lies in a clearing and the trails are all faint.  I headed north on the Cliff Creek Trail a short distance.  The next three way junction had another sign without trail names, just landmarks.  The trail I intended to follow wasn't even indicated on the sign.  There was an obvious tread however headed in the right direction.  This was the Mosely Ridge Trail.

Vegetation choked pond

My map indicated a junction a short distance ahead on the Mosely Ridge Trail.  I never saw this junction.  The trail seemed to be following Mosely Ridge, staying quite high.  My map indicated I should lose elevation.  The trail disappeared on top of the ridge.  Two, barely visible, trails dropped off the ridge, seemingly in the same direction.  I followed one and it appeared to be going in the right direction, becoming more defined.  I confirmed my course when I reached the next junction.

Mt Gunnison

Now on the Little Robinson Trail, I was hoping to find my home for the night soon.  The map indicated a creek along the trail.  The creek was dry, and while I had water, I didn't have enough to cook for the evening.  Fortunately, the trail passed by several minor drainages with water flowing.

Aspens

I crossed a prong of the creek I was following and it had minimal water.  At this point, there were only a few stagnant puddles.  The trail entered a meadow that had some promising spots for campsites.  At the edge of the meadow, I heard flowing water.  There was a decent creek flowing along one side of the meadow.  By now it was approaching 8PM.  With flat ground and nearby water, I made my home for the night near the end of the Little Robinson Trail.

I hiked approximately 24 miles and was ready to relax for the rest of the evening.  The meadow had a few mosquitoes, but not enough to be to much of a nuisance.  Mosquitoes assaulted me pretty badly while retrieving water at the creek.

After dinner, I set up my tent and soon retreated for the night.  It was a cloudless night, allowing me to leave my  rain fly open.  My campsite sat around 9300' in elevation in a fairly low drainage between much higher terrain.  There was no light pollution and the stars were quite impressive.  A few hours later, the moon made its way over the mountains to the east providing a quite bright night.

I sleep well when I backpack.  24 miles of hiking and over 5000' feet of climbing combined with an early morning usually make for a sound sleep.  I woke up refreshed in the chilly morning air.  I'm guessing the temperature was in the upper 30s.  I broke down my campsite and packed while I eating my breakfast.  I was back on the trail by 7AM.

I reached the end of the Little Robinson Trail quickly.  The sign at the three way junction showed no trail names once again.  There wasn't even any indication of the trail I intended to follow.  I followed a unmarked trail that appeared to be the one I wanted.  It was overgrown at first, but became more obvious quickly.  I soon reached the Castle Creek Trail, or so I hoped, since it was unmarked.

Dusky Grouse

Aspens in the morning light

According to my research, I would travel on the Cliff Creek Trail, before joining the Sheep Lake Trail.  Although it seemed longer than a mile, I reached another signed junction that indicated I was heading toward Sheep Lake.  The lower reaches of the Sheep Lake Trail traverse a meadow.  The trail all but disappeared.  A couple of conveniently placed cairns confirmed my route and led me back to a more obvious trail.  The Sheep Lake Trail is fairly scenic.  From the meadow, you are faced with nice views of the higher terrain.  As the trail climbs, it follows the edge of ridge that overlooks grassy basins guarded by cliffs below the higher mountains.

Storm Ridge

Trail lost in a meadow

The Beckwith Mountains

Mt Gunnison

Not sure what peak this is

I eventually reached Sheep Lake.  I'm guessing the area is one of the more popular destinations in the West Elk Wilderness, particularly with horses.  There were signs around the lake indicating no camping within 1/4 mile of the lake.  There was also hitching posts near the lake for horses.  As I approached the lake, I saw some horses in a meadow and could hear voices.  I never saw the people but it appeared they camped in the area.

The northern reaches of the West Elk Peak group of mountains stands above the lake providing a nice setting.  From the lake, the map indicated a continuation of the Sheep Lake Trail as well as the Sheep Lake Cutoff Trail.  Neither were visible from the lake.  Numerous herd paths were visible, however they appeared to be possible paths from fisherman.  I backtracked slightly a short distance below the lake where I saw a continuation of the trail.  There were no signs, but it was well tread and heading in the right direction.  Ultimately the trail led me where I intended to go.  I assume I was on the Sheep Lake Cutoff based on the map.

Sheep Lake

I reached the Soap Creek Trail, which I was supposed to follow a short distance before joining the Soap Basin Trail.  The Soap Creek Trail traveled through a meadow.  In the short distance I was on it, I passed a vague junction with no signage.  I assumed this was to avoid a blowdown, but the paths didn't come back together.  I stuck to path that followed closer to the creek, since it seemed more logical with the route on the map.  Quickly I descended to the creek and an easy crossing.

Browning Ridge

Mt Gunnison

On the map, there should have been a junction with multiple.  I only saw one obvious trail.  There was a sign post, but the actual sign was missing.  There was possibly another trail ahead but it seemed inundated by the willows and more like a game path.  I consulted the map and followed the obvious route. Based on my time, it seemed like this should be the Soap Basin Trail, my intended trail. To add to the confusion, I never saw a trail (Sheep Lake Trail continuation) that was supposed to intersect my route.  This description may get confusing.  This is because I was confused on the trails at the time.

Meadow on Soap Creek Trail

Hard to see trail on Soap Basin Trail

The route started out in agreement with my map.  As I progressed, the route and map seemed to differ.  My direction on the ground and map didn't seem to match.  I started to doubt if I was on the right path.  I thought I may have been on the southern Sheep Lake Trail. (There are two separate trails leading to Sheep Lake with the same name, one from the north and one from the south.  They are not connected and have separate trail numbers on my map and Forest Service publications.)  This was the trail that I never saw that was supposed to intersect the Soap Creek Trail.

Ridge in West Elk Group

I frequently consulted the map on this trail.  The direction never seemed quite consistent with either trail.  The only thing that seemed promising was the proximity to the creek that flowed near the trail.  I followed the trail close to 1.5 miles.  Finally it took an abrupt turn to the south and started climbing steeply.  I was finally confident my path was correct.  Much of the route was through overgrown meadows.  I don't know if the trail shifted with use or had been relocated, but the map and and actual trail didn't seem to coincide up until that point.

Soap Basin Trail view

I finally topped out at a saddle and another junction.  Once again there was a post, but the sign was missing.  Fortunately, my route seemed more obvious.  One trail could be seen dropping down the drainage below through a meadow, the other was very well tread and seemed to be heading in my direction.  I followed the well worn trail.  Every indication on the map showed I should be dropping in elevation and traveling below a peak.  The trail continued to climb.

Lupines

View from the saddle

I figured I must be on the right trail.  The other trail was obviously not in the right direction.  The trail I was on, followed close to a ridge with stunning scenery, overlooking Soap Basin, and views of West Elk Peak and numerous higher summits in the Wilderness.  I passed a memorial stone along the ridge for a hunter that must have frequented the area.  Finally after 1/3 of a mile and a couple hundred feet of elevation gain, the trail abruptly ended at a high point on the ridge with more wonderful views.  I consulted my map and headed back to the junction.

Memorial

View across northern West Elk group

Back at the junction, I took a minute to eat and regroup while figuring out where I was supposed to be going.  There was a faint path leading back on the north side of the saddle.  It wasn't the proper direction but I checked it out, finding it end in a couple hundred feet.  I went back over the obvious route that lead me up the ridge a short distance, hoping to find a faint trail leading in my direction.  I found no sign of a trail.  I traveled through the meadow a short distance to search for signs of a trail but found nothing.  My other option was to follow the path that descended along the meadow.  On the map, it would meet another trail, that would ultimately put me back on path.  Unfortunately it would add 5 miles or more.

The Beckwiths

Soap Basin

I finally headed down the path ready for my long detour.  A few hundred feet down the trail, I found a sign on the ground with several destinations, including my desired route.  The sign was just laying there and of no use since the arrows on the sign didn't correspond with anything.  Was this the missing sign from the saddle above?

Mt Gunnison

View from where herd path ended

At the sign on the ground, I noticed a rocky stretch in the meadow that appeared to be a dry creek bed.  With nothing to lose, I checked it out thinking maybe it was possibly a trail.  I followed downhill 100 feet or so.  Then I reached a faint trail intersecting the creek bed, barely visible in the grass.  It was headed in the proper direction.  I was back on route!

I followed the Rainbow Lake Trail for several miles.  The upper reaches of the trail traverse open meadows with nice views before dropping into the East Soap drainage.  The trail then reaches the Elk Creek drainage, which it follows for a while.  Although not terriblly hot, I stopped at both creeks to chug some water.  After a few miles, I reached the Sun Park Trail, my next leg.

Wildflowers

More flower variety

Upper part of Rainbow Lake Trail

Nice forest walk

Elk Creek

Looking up Elk Creek drainage

The Sun Park Trail climbs 2.2 miles from Elk Creek to a saddle between South and Middle Baldy Mountains.  The trail climbs above treeline to nearly 12,000'.  After initially traveling through forest, the trail entered a meadow with increasingly difficult to follow trail.  I never completely lost the trail, but it was marginally visible at best at times.  The trail tread eventually entered a rocky drainage and completely disappeared.  I retraced my steps through the rocky course but saw no signs of the trail.  Once again I consulted the map.  The trail on the map followed the north side of the creek that was a couple hundred feet away.  At this point I was in a long grassy gully that led to the obvious saddle that was my destination.  I passed through the rocky drainage to the grass to follow close the creek.  Once past the rocks, I intersected the trail tread in the grass.

Sun Park Trail

The trail follows this grassy gully

Back on the trail, the route was more obvious as it climbed the steep grassy gully near the creek.  The trail was quite steep with no switchbacks as it climbed the gully, probably the steepest sustained trail of the hike.  As I climbed higher and reached treeline, the views became increasingly scenic.

Looking down the Sun Park Trail

Higher up the Sun Park Trail

Once above the creek, now above the gully and on tundra, the trail became more difficult to follow.  At this point the saddle was quite easy to see.  Near the height of the land, the trail disappeared altogether.  As I continued without the trail, I spotted wooden posts ahead.  Near the crest, I spotted a sign marking a junction.  There still was no trail visible.

View across Middle Baldy's slopes

Looking down Sun Park Trail

Nice views on the upper part of Sun Park Trail

I was at the end of the Sun Park Trail at the saddle between South and Middle Baldy.  To the south, pickets marked the trailless South Elk Rim Trail over the tundra.  I was headed north on the Beaver Creek Trail.  No trail was visible, but a large cairn was in view at the edge of the krummholz.  Once in the krummholz, the tread was once again visible.

Vast tundra at the saddle between Middle and South Baldy

View east from saddle

Tundra to the south
Heading toward Middle Baldy



The trail picks up again

The Beaver Creek Trail traverses below Middle Baldy, traveling in between sections of krummholz and alpine rock for about a mile before reaching a 12,000' saddle after a mile.  This is the highest point of the trip after Storm Pass.  In this stretch I saw two separate ptarmigan.  The first one darted from a ground level overhang along the trail.  I'm guessing it was on a nest.  The second one immediately played the broken wing act, so I assume she was near a nest as well.  It's incredible how well their mottled, summer feathering blends in with the alpine rock.

Passing under Middle Baldy

The route under Middle Baldy

Looking back toward Middle Baldy/ South Baldy saddle

South Baldy in distance

Ptarmigan blends in nicely

Looking back toward South Baldy

Ptarmigan faking broken wing

The views in this stretch are quite impressive.  The peaks of the Elk Range are to the north.  The Sawatch Range and the Continental Divide are visible to the east.  Smoke from the Weston Pass Fire was visible to the east burning in the Mosquito Range to the east of Buena Vista.  "W" Mountain in Gunnison was easy to spot.  To the south, the peaks of the northern San Juans in the vicinity of Uncompahgre Peak were visible.  Just below the trail was a vast section of alpine meadow with several ponds.

Ponds below Middle Baldy

Lush alpine vegetation

Another look at the ponds on the tundra

Approaching the 12,000 saddle

Looking over the lush tundra

Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, and surrounding peaks

"W" Mountain in Gunnison

After the saddle, the trail dropped into the Beaver Creek drainage.  The trail was poorly defined as it switchbacked down through the tundra.  The scenery is quite impressive as it drops into the drainage.  After reaching the creek, the trail enters denser vegetation including willows.  At one point, I spotted a herd of six or so elk browsing on the willows in the distance across the creek.

View from the 12,000' saddle

Dropping toward Beaver Creek drainage

View across Beaver Creek drainage

My last stretch above treeline
Waterfall high on Beaver Creek



Elk (click to enlarge for better view)

Once in the dense vegetation, the trail became increasingly difficult to follow, until I eventually lost it completely.  The route is in a narrow drainage, close to the creek.  I finally gave up on the trail and continued downhill.  The route was straightforward as it stayed between the creek and the slopes of the drainage.  Periodically I would find the trail for a short distance, but would lose it again as it passed through a grassy meadow in thick vegetation.

Willows start to obscure the trail

The trail eventually goes through the meadows below

Unnamed summits above Beaver Creek

As the trail dropped in elevation, it traveled through more meadows.  The meadows were dense and the trail was rarely visible.  Travel was slow.  Eventually, I stopped for a break along the creek and checked my map.

Trailless meadow

The Beaver Creek Trail runs 6.6 miles.  Much of the middle section traveled through meadows heading east.  According to the map, the last mile veered south and the drainage narrowed.  From the spot I took my break, I could see the drainage narrow and make the turn south.  As I continued, the trail became more visible as it followed closer to the creek.  Given the nature of the trail so far, I was concerned about finding my next junction.

Lost the trail again

I continued along the last mile or so of the Beaver Creek Trail.  At this point, the trail stuck to the creekside as it traveled in what was now basically a canyon.  After making decent progress, the trail disappeared completely.  What was a fairly clear forest, quickly became dense with snags and blowdowns.  Since I was in a canyon, there wasn't much room to navigate around the snags.  After assessing the situation, I realized travel wasn't going to improve.

At this point, it was clear I wasn't going to find my next trail.  It was back to the map.  The trail I intended to take, the Zig Zag Trail, climbed steeply from Beaver Creek.  It gained nearly 1500' in 1.6 miles.  The Zig Zag Trail ends at the Wilderness boundary at the end of a Forest Service road on the top of a long, flat ridge.  Looking at the map, I could bushwhack out the canyon to the ridge, then follow the ridgetop to the road, in theory.

I backtracked a 1/4 mile or so to where the canyon allowed me to climb out.  The terrain started out modestly steep.  Unfortunately, the modest climb was short lived.  The terrain routinely approached 45 degrees.  I was off trail, negotiating downed trees and rocks on the steep terrain with no trail clearance.  This means there are tree branches to contend with.  This is not an easy feat with a pack.   My progress was slow, but I was gaining elevation.  I had close to 1500' to gain.  I could see bands of cliffs ahead.  Finally my upward progress was hindered as I cliffed out.  My patience was wearing a little thin at this point, but there wasn't much I could do.

The band of cliffs seemed to protect the ridge for a long stretch.  I dropped down a hundred or so feet and went across the slope, again not an easy feat given the terrain and raw forest.  I eventually reached a steep gully that climbed between cliff bands.  At this point the slope was pushing 50+ degrees.  I could touch the ground in front of me.  The gully had stable rock to help climbing and just enough trees near the gully for an occasional hand hold.  I traveled a few hundred vertical feet up the gully before exiting and the terrain mellowed.  At this point I climbed well over 1000 vertical feet.

I could finally see the ridge in the distance.  I was above all the cliff bands at this point.  Then out of nowhere I intersected a trail that angled toward the ridgetop.  I followed the trail maybe 1/4 mile before it disappeared.  At this point, I was just maybe 100 vertical feet below the ridge and headed directly to it.

As advertised on the map, the ridge was nice and flat.  There was even a herd path traversing along the ridge.  I crested a small bump along the ridge and could see the road in the near distance.  I continued along the herd path and soon entered a field with the end of the road (think doubletrack, not an actual road) just ahead.

The road in the clearing ahead

I was over 11,000' on an open ridge.  There was no water in sight.  Oddly, I was swarmed by mosquitoes in the field enroute to the road.  The weren't so much buzzing me as they were clinging to the backs of my arms and biting.  Each time I felt a bite, I would look at the backs of my arms and see as many as five mosquitoes at a time.

Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, and neighbors

I was happy to be at the road.  From the road was the Little Mill Creek Trail dropped from the end of the road to the north.  I was 3.7 miles from the Mill Creek Trailhead, where my journey began.  At this point it was 750PM.  Even though I still had 3.7 miles to travel, it was all downhill, dropping more than 2500' in that distance.  Rather than camp a second night, I figured I'd go for the last distance to the end of the hike.  There is lingering twilight until about 9PM.  At the very least, I figured I could make it to the road by 9PM and travel the last 1/2 mile or so along the road in the dark.

Interesting evening light

As anticipated, I traveled quickly on the Little Mill Creek Trail.  Now out of the Wilderness, this trail is open to dirt bikes and mountain bikes.  The trail's tread was very well defined and travel was easy.

Smoke from Weston Pass Fire

I made it at least a couple miles before hitting a minor road block.  It's not uncommon for cattle to be grazing on public lands in the west.  As I headed down the trail, I reached a herd of two dozen or so cattle, a mix of cows and calves.  This isn't a big deal.  I often encounter cattle and they usually just move out of the way and let you go about your business.  This herd had different plans.  A group of six or so decided to take off down the trail, the direction I was heading.  I continued.  As the group ran, the rest of the herd seemed to panic and took chase after the rest.  I was on the trail between the groups.  I stopped to get behind trees and hopefully let the closest cow pass.  Rather than pass it would stop and square off toward me.  This happened several times before it finally went around me through the trees with a wide berth.  At this point most of the chase group scattered in the woods behind me.  After 1/4 mile or so, the trail reached a clearing where the lead group moved off the trail and I could pass.

First sight of cows, the one closest was the one that worried me

With darkness setting in,  I was nearing the end of the Little Mill Creek Trail.  The last section of the trail overlapped an old doubletrack road.  There were a couple of spurs diverting from the road into meadows.  The road continued to the Wilderness boundary, while the Little Mill Creek Trail turned off the road enroute to the Mill Creek Road.  Since it was getting dark, I didn't want to miss my turn.

I reached a spur that dropped in elevation quickly from the road.  It wasn't marked, but seemed like the logical choice for my route.  Once again my gut was right and in a few minutes the trail dumped me out at the northern end of the Little Mill Creek Trail and the Mill Creek Road.  I looked at my watch and it was 859PM.  I just made it by 9PM as I had hoped.  From here it was an easy .5 miles down the dirt road to the trailhead, which I reached at 909PM.

With my detours trying to find trails, I hiked over 27 miles on day two.  My total trip covered just over 51 miles total with nearly 13,000 vertical feet of climbing and descent.

Close up of the Castles

This was one of the more interesting backpacking trips I have tackled.  My route followed established trails with the exception of my unplanned bushwhack away from Beaver Creek.  I never had to reference my map so much for a trailed route.  I don't think I ever had such continuously challenging route finding for a route following trails.  Nearly every trail was overgrown to an extent.  The minimal signage was often vague, even when the sign was actually still present.   I intrigued by the lack of visitors for such a large Wilderness, especially since it was a busy summer vacation week.  I understand why so many of the trails were showing signs of disuse.  I have hiked in numerous Colorado Wildernesses.  This was by far the most  consistently wild.  The West Elk Wilderness is definitely off the beaten track.

Castle View

Castle Creek panorama

Despite the challenge, the scenery of the area is quite enjoyable.  There is a nice mix of forest, meadow, and alpine scenery.  Even in the dry summer, the water seemed to be plentiful.  There is very little sign of civilization in the West Elk Wilderness and the area has an unspoiled feeling to it.

The Castles over Castle Creek

I wouldn't recommend a trip to the West Elk Wilderness to a beginner backpacker.  This trip is definitely for the adventurer with plenty of experience in the backcountry.  I wouldn't attempt travel here unless you are very comfortable and confident with your map reading ability.  As I said, the trails are not always obvious and the signs are vague at best.

The meadows provided nice views

Runoff waterfall above Beaver Creek

That being said, if you are an experienced backcountry traveler and are looking to get away from the crowds and have an unspoiled Wilderness to yourself,  the West Elk Wilderness will not disappoint.  Just be prepared to be self reliant.  There is little information to go by for pre-trip planning.  For pre-trip planning and navigation, I used the Latitude 40 Crested Butte-Aspen-Gunnison map and this was generally adequate with its 1:125,000 scale.  There is also a Crested Butte map with smaller scale that may be more helpful and detailed.  Trails Illustrated also makes maps of the area.  I have never referenced them to comment on their detail.

Faint trail descending toward Beaver Creek drainage

Click the following links for general information and a basic map of the West Elk Wilderness.
USFS West Elk Wilderness
Colorado Wild Areas- West Elk Wilderness
General Map

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