Thursday, September 25, 2014

Capitol Reef National Park: Lower Muley Twist Canyon via Cutoff Trail

Essence: Everything about this hike is oversized: the miles, the plentiful and enormous alcoves, and a spectacular wall that holds the Earth down for 2.5 miles.

"Fortress Wall" with 1,000 feet of relief--soaring, smooth, and shear. This is the hike's Grand Prize.

Travel: Zero-out your trip meter at Capitol Reef Visitor Center. Drive east on Utah State Hwy 24 for 9 miles to the Notom-Bullfrog Road. Go right/south. The first 11 miles are paved. The road is dirt the rest of the way and can be impassible when wet. Seriously. The track parallels the 100 mile long Waterpocket Fold on the east side. Pass the Cedar Mesa Campground at 31 miles and the Burr Trail Road at 43 miles. The Post is 2.3 miles past the Burr Trail turnoff. Go right/south. The turn is labeled, "Lower Muley Twist Trailhead." Drive one more mile to a large parking area at 46 miles. Allow 1.5 hours from the Fruita Campground. 4WD, high clearance recommended. Fee Information. Park facilities are open year-round.
Fruita Campground: This idyllic, shady campground is adjacent to the Fremont River, tucked amongst historic fruit orchards. The 71 sites, available only on a first-come, first-served basis, fill by mid-morning in spring and fall. There are bathrooms, fire grates, picnic tables, and water.   Campground information.
Cedar Mesa Campground: Located 22 miles south on the Notom-Bullfrog Road. Five sites with picnic tables, grills, outhouse, no water.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 16.8 miles (16.4 without side canyon exploration), approximately 1,000 feet of climbing
Total Time: 7:00 to 9:00
Difficulty: Trail, cairn, and canyon-bottom route; navigation is moderate but critical; brief, mild exposure on Cutoff Trail; carry all the water you will need; do not attempt this hike during or soon after significant rain.
Maps: The Post, UT 7.5 Quad; or Hiking Map & Guide: Capitol Reef National Park; or Trails Illustrated: Capitol Reef # 267, available at the Visitor Center, open daily, 8:00 to 4:30
Date Hiked: September 25, 2014
Quote: When you truly understand one thing--a hawk, a juniper tree, a rock--you will begin to understand everything. Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone

Route: Traverse Lower Muley Twist Canyon as a long day hike. From TH 4,851', go west on the Cutoff Trail over Waterpocket Fold. Intersect Lower Muley four miles south of the top of the Burr Trail Road switchbacks. Hike south until the canyon turns east and pierces Waterpocket Fold. Upon emerging from the narrows, follow the north-trending route back to the trailhead.

Trailhead 4,851', is located at the Post Corral on Halls Creek bottomland.

From the parking lot walk south to a sign, gate, and trail register.

Following the sign to Lower Muley Twist, go due west. Cross Halls Creek, quite possibly a muddy proposition. The sandy path is marked with white posts that lead directly to the stoney base of the Fold.

Follow well-placed cairns up a red ramp of Carmel Formation and onto white Navajo Sandstone.

While the route wiggles around a convoluted and contorted landscape, it heads solidly west. The way is delightfully unpredictable, revealed as you go. It is steep in places and there are a couple of mild friction moves. Generally, exposure on the Cutoff is overstated in the literature. What is understated is just how fun it is. I could happily do laps up and down the Fold all day.

Climb three ridges on the way to the highpoint at 5,488 feet. One of the great charms of this hike is climbing to the top of the Fold at the beginning, and cutting through it at the end. Scanning the landscape, there are other likely places to reach the top of the Fold from the east. However, descending to the west is another matter. The Cutoff punches through a rare weakness in the reef seen below. Brick-colored Kayenta Sandstone is on the other side of Lower Muley Twist Canyon. From the high point, the path drops into a sandy area where it becomes braided and spotty. Just get through the break to a small side canyon.

Go left downcanyon, following cairns to Lower Muley where there is a sign at 2.2 miles.

Walking is fast and easy on a (post-rain) firm, uniform washbed. Four days prior to our hike, the wash flashed three feet up the walls. Just beyond a side canyon, downcanyon-right (DCR), is the first of many massive alcoves characterizing this canyon. Some undercut alcoves are so deep, to enter is to walk into the night. Big ceiling blocks are piled up on the floors. Echos bounce off the opposite canyon wall. Sandstone walls grow ever higher, colors soft.

A coral-streaked alcove is at 6.8 miles and just beyond house-size blocks confound the washbed. They are cubical, sharp edged with 20 foot drops. A time-consuming, complicated, try-this-and-that approach, led to a climb-down. There were no cairns; take your time and you will find a way.

Fortress Wall appears first as a monolith. But no, it is a continuous wall that stretches on for 2.5 miles on the east side of the drainage, all the way to the canyon's easterly turn where it encases the narrows. The rock is Wingate Sandstone, a prominent cliff builder.

The river meanders but the straight wall continues.  A notable exception is a crimp forming an 80 foot-tall dam.

Fortress Wall, the predominate feature of this hike, is reason enough to walk many miles. The mighty wall evokes a sense of awe and primal emotion. In its presence, I had a strong feeling of protection. It takes up the entire eastern view from north to south and you have to crane your neck to see the top, 1,000 feet straight up. Truly, it is one of Earth's greatest creative masterpieces. In this typical image, water undercut an alcove at the wall's base.

Cowboy Cave is at 9.8 miles, DCR.

In the 1920's, cowboys carefully printed the inscriptions. These men probably did not get much schooling. Charlie Baker has an extra "L" in his name and Andrew Hunt writes his "N's" backwards. A few historical artifacts remain.

At 10.4 miles, explore a deeply sculpted and colorful side canyon, DCR. Tafoni-infused wall textures are almost freaky. We turned around 0.2 mile up at a wide opening revealing the Circle Cliffs.

At 11.0 miles, (10.6 without the side canyon), Fortress Wall swings east, bringing Lower Muley along with it.

Actually, the canyon's wash carved its way through Waterpocket Fold. Enter the narrows, the passage through the stone. While it is not super dramatic, it is quite lovely. The walls are Wingate smooth, and there's a feeling of intimacy and comfort.

As you exit the narrows, at approximately 12.0 miles, the Strike Valley cliffs are visible ahead. Very shortly, within 0.2 mile, a cairn on the left/north signifies the route out of the wash. If you miss the exit, in about 0.5 mile, you will come to Halls Creek. Turn north there. 

The trail makes a shallow climb and in 0.1 hits an old road. The final trek to the trailhead is fast walking on a mix of trail and barely discernible road. The track is either distinct enough or well-cairn'd all the way back. Waterpocket Fold is once again visible to the west. The northerly segment, not quite 5 miles, takes less than two hours.

The track crosses Halls Creek several times. Generally, it is a simple crossover. Only once will you drop into the wash and go around the bend before a cairn marks the way out. At 15.4 miles, the trail to Cottonwood Tanks veers left. I have not checked for water viability but hear it is usually reliable. The image below is the final Halls Creek crossing, 0.6 mile from the trailhead.

On April 24, 2016, we hiked downstream in Lower Muley Twist Canyon starting from the top of the Burr Trail Switchbacks. We did an eight mile out-and-back to the junction with the Cutoff Trail. There are two sets of short, low-wall narrows. Walk in a sandy channel with softly sculpted orange-salmon sandstone banks.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Yellow Mountain South, 13,177', Via Waterfall Creek

Essence: A neglected but stellar hike to an unranked peak, subsidiary of Pilot Knob. Follow Waterfall Creek while stepping up through three basins nestled between Yellow Mountain to the southwest and Pilot Knob, V3, U S Grant Peak, and V4 on east. Don't dismiss this exceptional adventure just because it doesn't go to a legal summit.

As seen from Lizard Head Pass, Yellow Mountain owns the entire ridge left/northwest of Pilot Knob, shown on the right. Yellow Mountain North is the tallest summit at the left end of the ridge while Yellow Mountain South is the first highpoint left of Pilot Knob.

Travel: Ophir Pass Route: In a 4WD/HC vehicle, from Durango, drive north on US 550 about 47 miles to Silverton. Zero out your trip meter and continue north on 550 towards Ouray. The sign for Ophir Pass is at 4.8 miles. Make a left and go steeply downhill on San Juan CR 8. Cross Mineral Creek noting the sign, "Recommended HC 4WD." At spurs, stay on the main road as it narrows to a more obvious shelf. Most of the distance is a shelf road so take the highway route if you are squeamish. In places the track is no wider than the wheels. At 7.9 miles, make a switchback to the right, avoiding the left spur. Ophir Pass, at 9.1 miles, 11,789 feet, is situated between North and South Lookout Peaks. So much for the easy side. On the west, the road gets much steeper with big, sharp rocks, dangerous for ordinary tires. The sharp switchback at the end of the first traverse has a big hole. If there are upcoming vehicles, wait until the road clears at the switchback because the next mile is a no-pass zone. The narrow, rough, exposed shelf is etched into a talus slope. Thread between the pillars and soon enter the trees where travel improves. Reach the town of Ophir at 12.1 miles. Follow the main road as it turns. At 12.4 miles, make a hard left and park immediately. A plaque honoring the Utes, located in a small stand of trees, marks the trailhead. Allow 1:40 to 2:00 from Durango.

Ophir Pass Road is not for everybody and certainly not for every vehicle. It is fairly typical of 4WD passes in the San Juans...rough, exposed, and resplendent. For those who do it, the drive is a bonus feature.

Highway Route: Ophir is located east of Hwy 145. The turn-off is between Telluride and Lizard Head Pass. In Ophir, drive east on Granite Street to the trailhead described above.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10 miles, 4,000 feet of climbing
Time: 6:30 to 8:00
Difficulty: Mining track, trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; mild exposure on optional trek NW of peak
Map: Ophir, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Date Hiked: September 18, 2014
Quote: The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with base notes, or dark lake with the treble. Wassily Kandinsky, painter
Route: The hike begins on an abandoned road in the town of Ophir, a favorite for dog-walking locals. The road stays east of Waterfall Creek, pinching to a good trail all the way up into the first of three basins. This is where most people turn around; the route from there is essentially off-trail. Ascend twice more into ever loftier basins, all the while in the company of Waterfall Creek, before claiming the saddle SE of Yellow Mountain South. It is a simple hike to the peak followed by an optional out-and-back to elevation 12,700 feet. 

Trailhead 9,756' is marked by a small stand of trees and a plaque honoring the Ute People, "Whose feet once walked this valley..." Yellow Mountain takes up the entire high earthline.

Walk southeast downhill on a blocked-off track, passing below cabins and homes. Cross Howard Fork on a footbridge and regain the road. Enjoy a pleasant uphill trek through an aspen/fir forest. While the course ambles, Yellow Mountain South is due south from the trailhead. At 0.5 mile, the road splits; take the left spur on the more established track. We mistakenly went right to stay close to Waterfall Creek and got drenched by tangled masses of flora.

The terrain opens into a gorgeous valley, "Waterfall Gulch." The creek holds down the center.

At 1.0 mile, stay left and at 1.2 miles, come to mine ruins. The road ends. A trail goes through the ruins and into a clearing.  At 1.7 miles, cross a small ravine and then see the big wall that marks the south end of Waterfall Gulch.  The first waterfall of the day plummets down through the trees. Meanwhile, Yellow Mountain is to the southwest, a verdant forest crawling up the sides of its water-stained walls, shown below.

To breech the waterfall wall, the trail makes an ascending southeast traverse. The steepness of the no-nonsense track is tempered by good views of the waterfall, right of center in this image. In autumn, geranium and fireweed leaves set the morning aflame.

At 2.3 miles, reach the cliffs at 11,200 feet. The trail makes an idyllic traverse along the base of the conglomerate mass and punches through a small opening in the rock. Top out at the north edge of "Basin One."

Leave the trail and walk to the edge of the spectacular cascade at 2.5 miles, 11,300 feet. From the moment you enter the basin, the next challenge is visible. The second waterfall tumbles down a slit in the cliffs at the south end of the basin.

Return to the trail that emerged from the trees on the east side of Waterfall Creek. The further south you travel the sketchier the trail becomes. Often it is non-existent but there are a few social remnants. Route finding is easy. Walk along the base of V3, 13,528'. Humongous boulders have fallen off V3 into the basin. Her skirts are a rocky affair.

Stay left/east of Waterfall Creek. The white coating in the streambed is a precipitate of a hydrous aluminum sulfate called basaluminite. For an in-depth explanation of this phenomenon, see Rolling Mountain.

Go under the first set of cliffs left of the waterfall. It is a quick 200 foot climb into the next basin. There is some trail structure into "Basin Two" but we didn't find it until our return.

Walk past a peninsula, leaving trees behind for the remainder of the hike.

Reach Basin Two at 3.2 miles, 11,840 feet. A cataract plunges through the gorge.

Start up the basin left of the creek. Watch for a trail at 12,000 feet going up a green slope on the right. Again, we missed it going up and stayed by the rocky creek which has its own charms. We stumbled on the trail coming down, marking it with a large cairn. The massive fin at the center of this image is actually the northface of Pilot Knob.

At 12,480 feet, 3.8 miles, enter "Basin Three," the smallest of the set. For the first time, see Saddle 12,960' located at the base of Pilot Knob. Ascend the steep, green slope to the saddle at 4.2 miles.

Turn northwest and go over a very yellow false summit to a second saddle. To scale the peak, shown, use a ramp on the right side of the ridge or climb straight up. Reach the peak at 4.4 miles.

Yellow South is an unranked summit (because there is less than 300 feet of vertical from its shared saddle with Pilot Knob). There is no register and very little evidence of traffic. However, the view is spectacular and so is the experience. Southwest are The Wilson's, Black Face, and Lizard Head. South is Grizzly Peak and San Miguel Peak. The V3, U S Grant Peak, V4 triplet, shown, is simply too wild for words. I have climbed U S Grant from Island Lake. We ran into a couple of Ophir residents on this hike who climbed it from this side.

We hoped to reach Yellow North from Yellow South and while that proved impossible, the optional 0.7 walk to where the ridge cuts away is recommended. There is mild exposure on the narrow ridge for the first 0.2 mile. Then it opens onto a welcoming, broad plateau with uniformly small rock.

Continue past Point 12,838' to the rift in the ridge at 5.1 miles, 12,700 feet. There appear to be several game-over breaches in the ridge. For me anyway, Yellow North must be scaled another way.

From here, the town of Ophir is visible well below to the north. The ridge above town spans Ophir Needles, Silver Mountain, and Oscar's Pass.

On our return, we looked longingly at Pilot Knob. The locals who climbed U S Grant from the Waterfall Creek side were back to attempt Pilot without ropes. Most people consider it a technical climb. Return to the trailhead as you came. However, upon leaving Yellow South, there is no need to re-climb the false summit. Simply descend from the first saddle as indicated on the track above.

In autumn the flowers were spent and had gone to seed. Considering how lush the lower reaches were, this would be a great mid-summer flower hike. Rayless senecio do not have ray flowers; here's a whimsical picture of them giving it all they're worth in mid-September.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Grayrock Peak, 12,504', and Graysill Mountain's Southern Points

Essence: Humble in height, Graysill Mountain makes up for it by going on forever. Approach from the southwest. Cross The Divide between Hermosa Creek and Cascade Creek drainages to reach Grayrock Peak. Then explore four distinct southern points of Graysill. The bulk of this hike is off-trail on talus. Watch for mighty elk herds.
Travel: From Durango, drive north on US 550 for 28 miles to Durango Mountain Resort. At mile marker 49, turn left. Zero-out your trip meter and advance up the paved, ski area road.  At 0.3 mile, turn right on Hermosa Park Road, #578. There is a small, brown sign marking this dirt road. A washboard-worthy 2WD should be able to reach the TH. The road, graced by aspens, makes three big switchbacks. Little spurs head off; the main road is obvious. At 3.2 miles, go right, staying on Hermosa Creek Road. At 3.6 miles turn right on Relay Creek Road, #579. Stay straight at 4.8 miles as Cascade Divide Road goes off on the right. (It serves the Pando Creek approach to Greysill.) Continue your passage on #580, contouring through aspens with occasional views of the day's quest and the Hermosa Creek Valley way down below. The East Fork of Sig Creek passes under the road through a culvert. Travel under Pt 12,007'. Park at 11.0 miles in a very large lot on the right. Allow 1:00 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8.4 miles, 2,900 feet of climbing
Time: 5:30 to 7:00
Difficulty: Abandoned road, off-trail; navigation considerable; mild exposure on The Divide and on Pt 12,007'; significant portion of route is on talus
Maps: Hermosa Peak; Engineer Mountain, Colorado 7.5 Quads
Date Hiked: September 13, 2014
Quote: Is a mountain only a huge stone? Is a planet an enormous mountain? Stanislaw Lem, Solaris

Grayrock Peak, left, and Graysill Mountain as seen from the ridge south of Jura Knob. Cascade Creek is down in the trench.

Route: Two standard routes service Grayrock Peak, the one described and Pando Creek. The mountain is immense. Use the Pando access to see Graysill's east side and to explore to the north. Our stem and loop route lends itself to roaming along the southern points. Approached from the southwest, the semi-flat mountain feels even more like a world unto itself.  Begin on an abandoned road before surrendering to a day in the talus, broken infrequently by patches of tundra. 

Trailhead 10,400' is marked by two road-blocking boulders down off the north side of the parking lot, hidden at left. This image looks back on the incoming road.

Go north on the moss and grass covered track with little evidence of use as it passes through an unhealthy fir forest. Follow the road intuitively and you will stay left at 0.3 mile and again at 0.5. At 0.7 mile, cross a rivulet. At 0.8 mile take the right fork.

Climbing gradually, the road becomes over-grown and indistinct as it nears a clearing below two points. "The Triangle" (as it appears on the 7.5 topo map), will loom to the east.

Point 11,663', pictured, a rounded form with patches of trees, is north. At 1.3 miles, 10,900 feet, stand in the heart of the clearing (N37 40.479 W107 53.360). It is a peaceful place of solitude. Imagine where Saddle 11,550' will be (center of image below), the next goal. Wend a course through small openings, stumbling on intermittent social and game trails. Cross an old road.

Find the golden path between the base of Pt 11,663' and the forest. This couldn't be a sweeter lift to Saddle 11,550' at 1.9 mile.

At the saddle, a new world opens with Hermosa Peak shown, center left, and Lizard Head on the right. The saddle is disorienting with the land dropping decidedly off to the north. Where's the mountain? Turn right/east, rising gently in the woods. Clamor over deadfall for a brief time.

Hold a direct east bearing while ascending to 11,800'. At 2.4 miles emerge on tundra (embrace it!) in the krumholtz. The mountain is on the horizon laying low like a gray whale. Continue walking due east, aiming for the base of the ridge.

There are startling views southwest to the La Plata range, the three mile knife of Lewis Mountain, visible. The image below features Pt 12,007', to be scaled later in the hike.

At 2.7 miles, 12,120 feet, reach the eastern edge of Graysill; the Cascade Creek drainage lies below. This is where the Pando Creek access joins our route. Turn south and begin a talus ascent on a rounded ridge; soon it becomes more distinct. Reach an overview at 2.9 miles, 12,360 feet. From here you can see the thin Divide leading to Grayrock Peak. Below, Engineer Mountain lies close by to the east. Grayrock's prominent rock glacier spills off the mountain.

In the image below, the highest point on the horizon is Grizzly Peak and to the left of it is Sliderock Ridge. Pando Creek is in the foreground.

The Divide is one of the greatest features of this hike. The thin line straddles the Hermosa Creek drainage to the southwest and Cascade Creek drainage to the northeast, both, massive water carriers.

The Divide is a place of great drama, but exposure is not a factor for most people. It narrows to eight feet wide. Walk across on teetering plates.

As the ridge melds into Grayrock, the grade increases briefly. Near the top a social trail skirts right of a ridge obstruction for 20 yards. The ridge ends abruptly on an exceedingly broad, tundra covered, almost flat summit that goes on and on.

The register is located in a rock pile east of a major bivouac at 3.6 miles. For those familiar with these mountains, the crest is at the center of the known world. Spin 360 degrees. This is the middle ground between the La Plata and San Juan ranges. See the grand sweep of the Colorado Trail connecting the two. Blackhawk Mountain is the big hulk nearby to the northwest. Skiers at Purgatory see Grayrock all day long; now you know why.

Many people climb mountains simply to reach the summit. The quickest return is to retrace your steps to the trailhead. However, if the weather is good and you wish a better understanding of this landscape, continue on the loop. And while it is admittedly a gray world, the exploring is bright and cheerful. So, from the summit, walk south to Pt 12,400'. This is straightforward and fun.

Look west to locate the second southern point, shown at the far left in this image. Return to the crest and walk back across The Divide on trickster, teeteree totteree talus.

Past the Divide, go southwest across this forever landscape to the very southern edge of the massive platform at 4.9 miles, 12,280 feet. The talus in this area was laid by a more competent stone mason and is rather accommodating to the walker.

From the second southern point, go west and work down a steep but manageable slope, aiming for the base of the Pt 12,007' ridge, shown. Turn south and climb a small knoll. The boulders on the other side will wreak havoc with your sense of balance. Climb the ridge to Pt 12,007'. It steepens and narrows the higher you get. Rocks are loose. There is mild exposure so if that's not your thing, take a pass on this optional spur to the third southern point.

Reach the top at 5.6 miles. The six foot cairn identifies Pt 12,007' from afar. This image looks back on Pt 12,400' and Pt 12,280'. Return from this out-and-back at 5.9 miles.

The final southern point is The Triangle, 11,840 feet, a small, worthy diversion. The way is clear.

Plot the homeward course from here. Look down on the clearing at the end of the road from this vantage point. You could conceivably return by way of Saddle 11,550'. We contoured northeast 0.2 mile and then down a gradual slope on a slight bench another 0.2 mile to the trees. Relaxing on the grass at 6.5 miles, my hiking partner said, There's not a soul anywhere out here except for us, the birds, the wind in trees.

To reach the clearing, drop southwest 0.4 mile to a faint roadbed. Go right for 0.2 mile to the incoming track. Go left, reaching to the clearing once again at 7.1 miles. Follow the road back to the trailhead. Returning on the Relay Creek Road, puzzling Graysill will make more sense. Pt 12,007' is left, Pt 12,280' center, and Pt 12,400', right.