Thursday, October 2, 2014

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

Essence: A loop hike up and around Durango's in-town mountain on a good trail. Multiple panoramas of town, the Animas River Valley, and two mountain ranges.
Travel: From downtown Durango, drive north on Main Avenue to 32nd Street. Turn left/west and drive three blocks to West 4th Avenue. Turn right and go two blocks to dirt parking at the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain : 6.2 mile loop; 1,565 feet of climbing
Time: 1:00 for a snappy runner; 3:00 allows for a leisurely walk with scenic pauses
Difficulty: Rocky trail and old road; navigation easy; no exposure
Map: Trails Illustrated: Durango #144; Trails 2000 interactive map:
Dates Hiked: Innumerable
Seasonal Closure, December 1 to April 15: The BLM and Colorado Parks and Wildlife enforce fixed, annual closure dates for Animas City Mountain. Previously, the time frame was conditions based, dependent on snow depth in the higher elevations and the subsequent migration of deer and elk to the mountain for winter shelter.  Radio collars on deer proved that they remained in the area -- snow or not -- until April 15. A 1.5 mile loop on the lower mountain may be accessed year-round via both trailheads and Dalla Mountain Park. Closure signs are posted at the trailheads and on the mountain.
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.

Map and Route: While the mountain may be accessed from two locations, this counter-clockwise loop starts at the West 4th Avenue Trailhead. The route heads northeast along the perimeter of the mountain, turns northwest to reach the crest, and descends south, taking in four overlooks along the way.

Given its ready access, sterling views, and pleasant uphill grade, the Animas City Mountain 6.2 mile loop is the local, multi-use favorite. Runners zip around after work, mountain bikers happily relish the single track's stoney challenge, and neighbors convivially amble with their dogs. After all, this is Durango's in-town mountain. The lower flanks, including Dalla Mountain Park, are within city limits. The upper mountain is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property.

Let's go take a peak! Pack water, snacks, and a camera for a walking tour of the mountain. It will be easy or moderate for most, taxing for a few, but the views of town and the surrounding terrain are sure to surprise and delight everyone.

From the trailhead at 6,700 feet, pass by the gate and almost immediately come to a signed junction. Plentiful and informative signs make navigation a cinch. They are a collaborative effort between the City of Durango and Trails 2000. Proceed straight ahead, avoiding the trail on the left. The treadway, edged with agave and prickly pear, climbs through a pinion-juniper and gambel oak forest. While the path is rocky, the grade is gentle. Although much of the loop trail utilizes a rather steep old road cut, Trails 2000 created and maintains the welcoming switchbacks on the east side.

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. Durango Viewpoint 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)

The mountain has bountiful enchantments for those who like to explore off-trail. In this region, well below the viewpoint, is a cave. Come back and find it! A chain of sandstone adorns the lower east slope. X-Rock is a favored crag in the array of slab, crack, top rope, and bouldering options.

With persistence, my hiking partner and I discovered a route that goes northeast from X-Rock and tops out at the San Juan Mountains Overlook. It involved a bit of scrambling and even more barging through intractable oak brush.

Along the way we discovered an ancient juniper grove on a steep slope. Some of these stately Rocky Mountain Junipers may be 2,000 years old!

Back on the trail, at 1.3 miles, pass a venerable log with a tightly spiraled trunk. Wildlife sightings in this area include cougars and bears. Have some awareness. Sure, there are deer but your chances of seeing them are better in your own yard.

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.

At 2.6 miles, 8,000 feet, arrive at the San Juan Mountains Overlook, unmistakably marked by a stately, bygone piƱon 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. A prominent rockfall occurred in 1997 and has been widening ever since. When the river floods, this is where people come to ogle.

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

There are two high points on the north edge of the mountain, both marked with cairns. The USGS Durango East quadrangle designates the second rise as the true top. So, at 3.5 miles, turn right onto a social trail that leads to the summit. Go ahead, get a little giddy about living in a town with a backyard 8,161 feet high. While it is common to drop "City" when referring to this eminence, its true and proper name is Animas City Mountain.

As fine as this moment is, save your picnic for the La Plata Mountains Observation Point. Return to the main trail and descend for 0.2 mile to a sandstone outcrop on the west side of the mountain at 8,100 feet. The community of Turtle Lake is tucked underneath. Falls Creek Ranch is at the northern end of the valley.

The east massif of the La Plata Mountains is due west. Silver Mountain is the commanding peak on the left; Lewis Mountain is center right.

The author takes advantage of a horizontal perch to scrutinize the hometown La Plata range. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

It's all downhill from here. While the upper track is mostly smooth and even levels briefly in a meadow, most of the descent utilizes the old road which can be steep and rubbly. At 5.6 miles, the Mid-Mountain Trail comes in on the left. Keep going! Once past here, you may take any trail to the left to get back to the trailhead. However, the full loop route continues on. Views of Perins Peak and the Hogback open.

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.

At 5.9 miles, six trails converge. Study the sign. To complete the loop to the trailhead, go under the power lines and take the second trail on the left/east; it goes sharply downhill. Keep in mind, 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 0.5 mile southwest; take 20 steps on the water tank trail and then veer off right.

The last 0.3 mile segment of the loop is the steepest with a scrabbly surface.

Current trail conditions and an interactive map may be found at 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 public access and connectivity inside the town and out into the wild places.

Alternative Hikes: This loop may be enjoyed in either direction. 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.

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