Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Abajo Peak, 11,360', High Point of the Blues

Essence: High point of the "Blue Mountains" west of Monticello, in the southeastern corner of Utah. More challenging than the standard Cooley Pass route. Why drive when you can walk? Enchanted forests with fairy slippers, towering aspen and venerable ponderosa. Open, grassy slopes with views into the extreme blue distance. Utah's canyonscape provides the solid floor surrounding the sky island. An intimate day in this small, distinctive range seen from all over the Four Corners.
Travel: In Monticello, Utah, zero-out your trip meter at the corner of US 491 and US 191. Drive south on US 191 for two blocks and turn right on 200 South. Go left on Abajo Drive at 0.4 mile. The road climbs directly up the skirts of the mountains. Enter Manti La Sal National Forest at 2.4 miles; the road becomes FSR 105. Go left on dirt FSR 086 at 4.8 miles. Drive past some of the oldest ponderosa on the planet. Park in a large lot at 5.9 miles. 2WD should be able to reach the trailhead.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 6.6 miles; 2,900 feet of climbing
Time: 5:00 to 7:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation considerable; no exposure
Map: Abajo Peak, Utah 7.5 Quad
Date Hiked: June 16, 2015
Quote: Each person has the ability within to awaken and walk in a sacred manner. The manner with which we walk through life is each man's most important responsibility and we should remember this every new sunrise. 
Thomas Yellow Tail

Abajo Peak is just left of center in this image taken from US 191 a few miles east of Monticello.

Route: The stem and loop trek, utilizing two northeast ridges, may be hiked in either direction. The loop closes at Point 10,958'. Descend minimally to a saddle before making the final summit push. This description assumes a counterclockwise direction.

From the parking lot at 8,760 feet, walk west up the grassy slope a few paces, looking left for an abandoned ski area track. 

The path, now a hunter's trail, is a great assist as it switchbacks up the lower flanks of the broad ridge. Enter the forest and climb steeply.

Trees give way and the trail emerges onto an open hillside covered with scrub oak. Intermittent sunny glades afford frequent views to the east. At 0.3 mile, 9,100 feet, enter a young aspen forest. Here lives a woodland star, a member of the saxifrage family. While we expected to find several unusual flowers on the sky island, this is the only one that is rare in the San Juans, our home mountains. (THW, photo)

At 0.7 mile, pass through and close a second gate. The path switchbacks left at an old lift shack. At 0.8 mile, go left onto an even steeper social trail. Fir trees predominate at 9,900 feet. The trail fades. For a time cairns mark the way.

Eventually the social trail disappears. At 1.6 miles, 10,500 feet, we left the ridge and made a rising traverse to the southwest. However, you could just as simply continue up the ridge to Point 10,755'. The navigational objective is the ridge running north and south, shown below, with four numbered points on the topo. (THW, photo)

We topped the north/south ridge at 1.8 miles, 10,770 feet. Given the extensive aspen forest, this would be a stellar autumn hike provided you wear blaze orange. The ascent ridge is shown in the center of the image below.

Turn south and follow the ridge to Point 10,958'. Generally, walking is easy with just one talus stretch and a few fallen trees to clamber over. It has been a wet spring and patches of snow lingered in the shady forest mid-June.

At 2.7 miles, go right/west on an old road down to the saddle. Now the peak, cluttered with communication towers of all types, rises suddenly. (THW, photo)

The flanks of Abajo Peak are sandstone but the crown is an intrusive laccolith. The final summit push is on an abandoned, granitic roadcut. Crest the Abajo Range at 3.3 miles.

The towers are a disappointment. Still, I have spent decades looking at the Blues from the far reaches of the Four Corners and it was a thrilling moment to be atop the range. Find a worthy vantage point just southwest of the peak. This image shows South Peak, the community of Blanding, and Combridge.

The Bears Ears ripple the horizon, while Mount Linnaeus, 10,958', beckons. Off image-right are the Henry Mountains and Canyonlands.

Circling the peak, the La Sal Mountains soar east of Moab.

We returned to the saddle, intending to retrace our steps. However, we couldn't resist the ridge fanning east from Point 10,958', shown. It proved uncluttered with a commanding panorama--heavenly.

A large elk herd with young calves grazed on the east side of the range. Our familiar, unobstructed skyline was just visible through the curtain of rain: Lone Cone, the San Juan Mountains, La Plata Mountains, and Sleeping Ute Mountain.

Pass by a string of sawed off power posts. At 5.0 miles, 9,750 feet, the posts are still standing. Walking was effortless down "Powerline Ridge".

As indicated on the map above, at 9,300 feet, 5.5 miles, we left the trail and did a descending traverse to the northeast. However, I recommend taking the blue-dash line route. Simply stay on Powerline Ridge until the grade softens and turn left. You will soon find a well-pounded trail that leads directly back to the trailhead. Do not drop below 8,700 feet.

We went into the woods hoping to find calypso orchids, "fairy slippers". Charmed, we found two in dappled light on the floor of a young aspen forest on a north-facing slope. The forest was troubled with continuous deadfall and so I can't recommend this route. However, upon crossing "Pipeline Creek", our trek became positively enchanting.

Enormous aspen thrive in the bottom of the gully. Bigtooth maple, the western version of the sugar maple, border a game trail.

Next came tall scrub oaks so politely spaced it felt like a fairy tale forest. On top of a low rise were old-growth ponderosa pines. Just before the trailhead we happened upon the trail that leaves southeast from the parking lot posted, "foot and horseback only."

The Abajo Mountains host a diversity of wildflowers. Here is a list of the 43 species blooming in mid-June in order of appearance: wild iris, golden banner, New Mexico groundsel, larkspur, fleabane daisy, spring beauty, blue-eyed Mary, fairy candelabra, mouse ear chickweed, white peavine, mountain parsley, pussy toes, lupine, wall flower, purple violet, mahonia, woodland star, coralroot, draba, candytuft, drummond rockcress, yellow stonecrop, sugarbowl, bluebell, anemone (windflower), alumroot, current (two varieties), green gentian, buttercup, strawberry, Jacob's ladder, locoweed, potentilla, white violet, false Solomon's seal, western valerian, clematis, baneberry, fairy slipper (calypso) orchid, sweet cicely, polemonium, and Richardson's geranium.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Baldy Peak, 10,866': The Long and Legal Approach

Essence: A gorgeous, proud mountain with unusual flowers defining the southern terminus of the La Platas. The lowest peak in the range, ironically, requires the highest effort to summit.
Travel: Zero-out your trip meter at the US 160/550 intersection in Durango. Drive west on US 160. Turn right on Lightner Creek Road, CR 207, at 3.3 miles. Take a soft right on CR 208, Dry Fork Road, at 4.4 miles. Enter the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area. The dirt road is prone to potholes but 2WD vehicles should make the trailhead. At 6.3 miles take the left fork. Swing left into the generous parking lot at 6.5 miles. It is a mere 15 minutes from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 16.0 miles; 5,150 feet of climbing
Time: 9:30 to 11:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail, abandoned mining road; significant navigational challenge; no exposure; brushy.
Maps: Durango West, Hesperus, Colo. 7.5 Quads
Latest Date Hiked: June 11, 2015
Quote: You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. In climbing, take careful note of the difficulties along your way; for as you go up, you can observe them. Coming down, you will no longer see them, but you will know they are there if you have observed them well. There is an art of finding one's direction in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. Rene Daumal

As seen from Smelter Mountain in Durango on February, 2014, Baldy Peak is positioned well south of Silver Mountain and rises to the northwest of Twin Buttes. It is girded with aspen groves and opens to a wide summit expanse. The long approach over, climb the eastern flank of the mountain.

Map: This map shows the route from Dry Fork to Baldy Peak. It is hand drawn since I was not carrying a GPS. While not exact, it is very close. The route circumvents several parcels of private land.

Route: Baldy Peak is the lowest mountain in the La Platas but it is the hardest to achieve. It is only two miles due east of Mayday but you cannot get there from the hamlet because of private property issues. We considered going by way of Deadwood Mountain and Paine Ridge but that is a daunting task. This hike begins quite near Durango but it takes a navigational wizard to find the way.

From trailhead 7,380', walk directly west along a tributary of Dry Fork on a well-defined trail. The land is within the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area. The peregrine falcon habitat is closed yearly from November 19 to March 31.

The path climbs softly through old-growth ponderosa, aspen, and beside a prize-winning scrub oak.

Pass through a grove of blossoming hawthorn trees, shown. In 1.0 mile, reach a rise at 7,800 feet directly north of Barnroof Point.

The trail turns north onto a low ridge. Mules ears and lupine are profuse in late spring. Silver Mountain rises stately on the skyline. Pause and get your navigational bearings. In the image below, Deep Creek is the first depression. The moraine, shown, separates Deep Creek from Lightner Creek. Next is the southeast flank of Baldy. The peak is center-left.

The path crosses a gorgeous meadow. A gate at 1.5 miles marks the National Forest Boundary.

Continue on the trail to Deep Creek at 2.0 miles. There is an old irrigation ditch that serves as a stellar path around the south end of the moraine. However, it is on private land. Therefore, upon reaching Deep Creek move up the drainage to the north half a mile and then climb northwest onto the moraine, topping out at 8,040 feet.You must reach this elevation on the ridge to avoid private land.

The western side of the moraine is steep and cliffy in places. Work your way down 400 feet to Lightner Creek, thrashing through dense oak and snowberry.

We crossed Lightner at 7,640'. It is worth noting that in 2015, we got chased off the mountain by a severe thunder storm just shy of the summit. Lightner Creek was flashing when we crossed it once again. Sketch!

There is an old road that parallels the creek on the west side. Cross this road and climb west through the forest. In time you will hit an abandoned road that winds for miles up to the Texas Chief Mine. We reached it at 8,400'. Relief! (If you get on the road any lower, you will be on private land.) Turn right. The road switches up the east flank of Baldy, crossing dry Big Stick Ditch.

At 8,980 feet the track makes a final left and goes west toward the peak. It skirts to the south of Pt 9,668' posing as a false summit. Stay on the road another half mile, leaving it at 9,600 feet to walk through a lovely mixed forest, including limber pines, on the east ridge. Half a mile before the top, trees mysteriously disappear and the rounded, grassy crest is visible.

To review, navigation may seem complicated but really you are just walking west or northwest from the Dry Fork to Deep Creek to Lightner Creek to the eastern flank of the mountain, making the most of an old road which will greatly assist your climb.

On the summit it feels like you are tucked under the purview of Silver Mountain. Ohwiler Ridge furthers the sense of encasement. It seems fabulously remote considering we are in Durango's backyard.

This is one of the best nature hikes in the La Platas. It took three of us holding hands to get around an old growth ponderosa. One aspen had the four card suits carved into its trunk long ago. Ladybugs covered the summit. Fresh bear and elk scat littered the way. We saw two kinds of swallowtail butterflies, a Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly, red-tailed hawk, and two golden eagles soaring. A horney toad pressed his belly against a warm rock.

Since this is a low elevation hike, unusual flowers complimented the regulars, including the rare Pagosa bladderpod, Rocky Mountain milkvetch, pigmy bitterroot, sugar bowl, spotted coralroot, golden banner, bastard toadflax, evening primrose, strawberry, chokecherry, serviceberry, dogwood, clematis, blue-eyed Mary, townsendia, heartleaf arnica, pussytoes, wild iris, sweet cicely, wall flower, rockcress, flax, woods' rose, Indian paintbrush, lupine, larkspur, bluebells, cinquefoil, New Mexican senecio, and scarlet beeblossom, below.
Yes, this was a long hike to a low peak but that was a good deal of its charm. Baldy Peak is quintessentially western and very much kin with the town of Durango, a stones throw to the southeast.