Monday, November 6, 2017

Animas City Mountain, 8,161': Out The Back Door

Essence: Given its ready access and pleasant uphill grade, Animas City Mountain is the locals' multi-use favorite. Featured, are two loop hikes up and around Durango's in-town mountain on good trails. Enjoy multiple panoramas of town, the Animas River Valley, and two mountain ranges. In 2017, this entry was revised to include the relatively new perimeter trails. On the eastside trail, weave through and play on colossal boulders under thick and towering ponderosa. The westside smooth dirt singletrack is a pleasing contrast with rubbly interior footpaths. The lower flanks are within city limits. The upper mountain is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property.
Travel: From Main Avenue, turn west onto 32nd Street. Drive three blocks and turn right on West 4th Avenue. The dirt parking lot is two blocks ahead. It fills on weekends so arrive early. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: The standard loop is 6.0 miles with 1,560 feet of climbing. The perimeter loop is 6.4 miles with 1,600 feet of vertical. 
Time: 2:00 to 3:30
Difficulty: Trail and abandoned two-track; navigation easy; no exposure
Maps: Trails Illustrated: Durango #144; standard loop appears on the Trails 2000 interactive map. The perimeter trails are not signed or mapped.
Revised: November 6, 2017
Seasonal Closure, December 1 to April 15: The upper portion of the mountain is off-limits to human travel throughout this period. Chains are pulled across trails; you can't miss the turn-back locations. Both the BLM and Colorado Parks and Wildlife have enforcement authority and their officers issue $250 citations. A 1.5 mile loop on the lower mountain remains open.
Quote: Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So... get on your way. Dr. Seuss

Animas City Mountain hovers over town, watching the morning train head out to Silverton, listening to the frolicking Animas River, and greeting a friend standing on the Rim at Fort Lewis College.

Route: The standard loop trail is depicted with the blue line. The Eastside and Westside Perimeter Trails are the black-line routes. Both loops work equally well in either direction but this description goes counter-clockwise because navigation markers are clearer. The purple line represents the westside link to Dalla Mountain Park.

Standard Loop Trail
All routes leave from the West 4th Ave. Trailhead, elevation 6,700 feet. Just past the LPEA substation the trail splits; bear right at a signed junction. Trail maps are a collaborative effort between the City of Durango and Trails 2000.

The rocky treadway, edged with agave and prickly pear, ascends through a piñon-juniper woodland. Durango is in the Rocky Mountain and Utah juniper overlap zone. The Rocky Mountain variety are the feathery trees with abundant blue berries. There is a particularly ancient forest on the northeast slope with trees upwards of 2,000 years.

At 0.7 mile, turn right at a signed junction. At one mile, leave the path and follow a social trail a few steps to the right. Sandstone slabs overhang the mild precipice. This vantage point not only shows off the city, it offers a startling contrast between ever-so-straight Main Avenue and the sinuous Animas River. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Pass a venerable log with a tightly spiraled trunk. Wildlife sightings in this area include cougars and bears.

Turn right again at the next two junctions. The upper mountain is park-like after the completion in 2010 of a two-year Urban Interface Fuels Mitigation project by the BLM. Given the homes surrounding the base of the mountain and its proximity to town, reducing the potential for a conflagration was wise.

The Eastside Perimeter Trail comes in on the right at 2.2 miles. Then the standard loop trail takes over. As it happens, both trails are equidistant to this point.

Eastside Perimeter Trail 
Begin on the standard loop. In half a mile two posts and a dangling silver chain mark one of several seasonal closure locations and the beginning of the Eastside Perimeter Trail. Turn right and track below an upthrusting cliff on a wide benchland safely suspended above the valley floor.

Keep company with boulders that have peeled away from the escarpment and tumbled to repose. These raspy and granular behemoths are just waiting to be climbed. A favorite is less than a mile into the hike. Daring climbers will find thin ledge features on the vertical front face. Children may climb the north ramp.

Scammer all over the flat, broad surface of a toppled block. The eastside boulders come in all sizes—happiness for all who stop to play. The path turns westward to rejoin the standard loop at 2.2 miles. Turn right.
 
Standard Loop Trail
At 2.5 miles, 8,000 feet, arrive at the San Juan Mountains Overlook, unmistakably marked by a stately, bygone piñon tree. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

If your timing is right, you can see and hear the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad chuffing alongside US 550. The San Juan view wedge spans Engineer Mountain, the Twilights, and Mountain View Crest.

Missionary Ridge defines the valley's eastern boundary, shown below. A prominent rockfall occurred in 1997 and has been widening ever since. I was here recently with geologist John Bregar and we lingered for a geology lesson.

Animas City Mountain Geology
The mountain is a classic cuesta, an asymmetrical ridge with an escarpment north and east, and a long and gentle backslope that conforms to the tilted beds of resistant sedimentary strata. Dalla Mountain Park is located at the southern base of the dipslope.

The geology of Missionary Ridge mirrors that of the mountain. The upper cliff band is Dakota Sandstone. The boulders we passed through are Dakota blocks that rolled down the Morrison Formation, a soft greenish gray shale and mudstone mix. Around the base of the mountain there are green rocks embedded in the trail. They are characteristic of the Morrison which harbors dinosaur fossils elsewhere in Colorado.

The next layer is Junction Creek Sandstone, the climbers’ prize at X Rock, a favored crag in the array of slab, crack, top rope, and bouldering options. Underlying Junction Creek is Entrada Sandstone, a distinctly smooth, light gray formation.

Leaving the overlook, the uphill trail turns northwest. Stay right at a juncture with the "Mid-Mountain Trail" at 2.8 miles. In the spring after a wet winter the entire upper mountain is carpeted with sunshine-yellow mule’s ear. Make a point to visit them at peak bloom. Just as the snow melts, the ground is covered with glacier lily and delicate spring beauty.

Continuing westward along the north edge the trail climbs gently to the crest. Cairns mark the location at three miles. While the map labels the second prominence the summit at 8,161 feet, I’m pretty sure this first hump is a good 20 feet higher. A few limber pines, scattered white fir, and quite a number of Douglas fir live on the crest.

Just past the second highpoint the trail splits. Either path will lead you to the La Plata Mountains Observation Point at 3.6 miles. Dominating the eastern block of the range are Silver Mountain and Lewis Mountain.

Perching rocks overhang the hamlet of Turtle Lake.  Falls Creek Meadow with its array of popular trails is image-center.

Locate the map post near the observation point. Two trails leave from here. For the standard loop bear left. It will save you 0.4 mile. The upper track is mostly smooth and even levels briefly in a meadow. But most of the descent utilizes a rather steep and rocky old road.

Westside Perimeter Trail
For the westside offshoot, bear right onto a smooth dirt singletrack, a pleasing contrast with the rubbly interior footpaths. The broad cuesta has a satisfying sameness. Look through the ponderosa and gamble oak to Perins Peak and Barnroof Point. With the return of spring the forest floor is enlivened with thousands of exquisite white sego lilies.
(THW, photo)

At 5.2 miles the south trending trail turns easterly and splits. The path to the right passes through a seasonal closure location and drops 250 feet over a quarter mile to link with the Ponderosa Trail in Dalla. (The purple-line trail on the map above.) For those familiar with the bouldering park, the link trail is located a few steps east of the biggest and finest boulder of them all.

Bear left to continue along the Westside Perimeter Trail and soon come to “The Ledge.” This area is well known to adrenaline junkies who get off on messing around on the rock sentinels. For the rest of us, there is something aesthetically appealing about a line of standing rocks cleaved from their wall of origin.

The westside path melds almost imperceptibly into the standard trail at 5.8 miles. There are no cairns marking the junction so take note if you ever want to do the hike clockwise.
 
Western hawksbeard, shown, is an uncommon, early summer bloomer restricted to this part of the mountain. In the spring, lupine, penstemon, and Indian paintbrush practically take over. Additional flowering plants include: orange globe mallow, golden banner, chokecherry, senecio, larkspur, and whiplash daisy. Golden eye is abundant in autumn.

Six trails converge 0.3 mile below the merge. Study the sign. Two paths head northwest into Dalla Mountain Park's world of boulders. The town's green water tank is south. The Birket Trailhead is roughly half a mile southwest--take 20 steps on the water tank trail and then veer off right. To complete the loop to the trailhead, go under the power lines and take the second trail on the left/east. It dives sharply down a hardscrabble hill.

Alternative Hikes: Solitude is generally guaranteed on the Mid-Mountain Trail. Dalla Mountain Park, frequented by bouldering enthusiasts, has many interlaced, relatively level trails. The Birket Trailhead is a secondary mountain access from a residential neighborhood. Drive west on 25th Street passing Miller Middle School. Birket Drive is the first right after Four Corners Health Care Center. The trailhead is well marked.

Trails 2000: Current trail conditions may be found on the Trails 2000 website. Trails 2000 has an agreement with both the BLM and City of Durango to maintain the entire trail system. Trails 2000 is a Durango-based volunteer orgainzation with a 25 year history of planing, building, and maintaining trails. Durango is surrounded by a diverse array of public lands. This advocacy group focuses on providing access and connectivity inside the town and out into wild places.

Why seasonal closure is so important: By December animals have migrated from the high country to winter rangeland. Here they take refuge until food is once again available in higher elevations. Over winter, deer and elk are slowly starving, losing 30 to 40 percent of their body weight. Deer will begin dropping in April. The animals are vulnerable, hiding places scant. You may not see the game but they see you and flee, burning calories that are not replenished. Be kind to the animals and honor the closure. Don't travel beyond the chains.

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