Monday, July 13, 2015

Missionary Ridge: Haflin Creek to Stevens Creek Via Baldy Mountain, 9,874', and More

Essence: A collection of superb, three-season hikes in the low country. In spring, aspen corridors are carpeted with purple larkspur and sunny dandelion. Spears of lupine and wood's rose fill green glades with sublime fragrance. Mid-autumn, walk through tunnels of gold. Views all along the ridge of the La Plata Mountains and Animas River Valley. In June, 2002, the Missionary Ridge Fire claimed 73,000 acres ranging in elevation from 6,500 to 11,400 feet in the Animas, Florida, and Los Pinos river valleys.
Difficulty: Trail; navigation easy (Haflin North Ridge is off-trail; navigation challenging); no exposure
Maps: Durango East, Hermosa, Lemon Reservoir, Rules Hill, Colorado 7.5 Quads; or Latitude 40: Durango, Colorado
Latest Date Hiked: May 8, 2018
Quote: I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. John Muir

A stalwart stand of burned aspen enveloped by life. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Route: There is an elaborate trail system on Missionary Ridge with multiple approaches from both the east and west sides. Scroll down for various hike descriptions.

Haflin Creek Trail #557 to Stevens Creek Trail #728 Via Missionary Ridge Trail #543
Travel:  At US 550 and Trimble Lane (CR 252), zero-out your trip meter and drive east. At 0.9 mile, turn left/north on East Animas Road (CR 250). At 3.6 miles turn right at the Stevens Creek TH. There is room for only one vehicle. Drop a car and head back south on CR 250. The roomy parking lot for the Haflin Creek TH is on the left at 7.5 miles. Alternatively, if you wish to go directly to the Haflin Creek TH from Durango, it is 5.4 miles north from the corner of East Animas Road and Florida Road (CR 240), on the right.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 19.2 miles, 4,440 feet of climbing.
Time: 8:00 to 10:00
Route: This is a grand, all-day tour of Missionary Ridge, depicted on the map above with a black line. While it can be done in either direction, I prefer to climb the steeper Haflin Creek Trail and descend the more gentle Stevens Creek Trail. Haflin is popular with hikers, runners, and mountain bikers. A superb training ground close to town, the grade is steep, gaining almost 3,000 feet in 4.0 miles. It is free of snow relatively early.

From the Haflin Creek Trailhead at 6,640 feet, a well-maintained, red-earth track heads roughly east while switchbacking steeply up an open slope on the north side of deep and rugged Haflin Canyon. All along the way are compelling views of the Animas River Valley and Animas City Mountain.

Plants on the west-facing slope belong to the American West: piƱon and juniper, scrub oak, yucca, rice grass, rabbit brush and sage, mountain gold, snake weed, and buckwheat. At 1.2 miles, the grade softens and follows the contour, suspended well above Haflin Creek. Hugging the hillside comfortably, the track crosses two red sandstone creeks, usually dry. The second crossing at 2.0 miles has a horizontal ladder for mountain bikers. (Dismantled in 2017.) The Permian Cutler Formation is so enticing, some regulars will tarry here and then simply head home.

The trail comes alongside Haflin Creek and begins its no-nonsense climb to the ridgetop. The entire drainage basin was burned in 2002. While there is still enough standing dead to warrant being wary on a windy day, most of the scorched forest is on the ground. The once venerable ponderosa pine, spruce-fir, and aspen look like pickup sticks. Trees are frequently cleared from the trail but climbing over fresh deadfall is inevitable. In 2015, chokecherry is having a good year.

Capitalizing on open sky, baby aspen are 10 to 15 feet tall. They provide cover for a diversity of wildflowers. In spring, the fragrance of lupine is energizing.

The route treads the bottom of ascending Haflin Canyon to 9,200 feet before spinning onto a dryer, south-facing slope. It makes one final switchback south and takes aim at the ridge on a rising traverse. Gain the ridge and intersect the Missionary Ridge Trail at 4.0 miles, 9,480 feet, after a climb of 2,840 feet. Needless to say, there are plenty of logs to sit on while contemplating the view of the La Plata Mountains to the west.

An out-and-back on the Haflin Creek Trail takes four to six hours. Most people will turn around here. However, the local highpoint, Baldy Mountain, is only 1.4 miles north. Stevens Creek Trailhead is a whopping 15.2 miles northwest.

For hikers doing the through-hike in the opposite direction, in 2015 the wooden sign for the Haflin Creek Trail disappeared and only the post remains to signify this critical juncture. The image below shows hikers walking north on the ridgecrest near the Haflin junction.

At 4.9 miles, the Missionary Ridge Trail bears left on a faint track marked by a cairn.  For those who wish to summit Baldy Mountain, it is an easy 1.0 mile, round-trip diversion on an old road. Follow it to the easternmost highpoint at 5.4 miles, 9,874 feet. Festooned with communication towers, Baldy is an industrial mountain. Still, there are some nice views between the annoying metallic tangle.

Return to the Missionary Ridge Trail at 5.9 miles. The path is on the west side of the ridge, bearing northeast. Pass the First Fork Trail, an eastern lateral at 7.1 miles, 9,500 feet. For almost two miles, walking is stellar, level and fast. At 10.2 miles, 9,840 feet, the Red Creek Trail goes off to the east. Continuing northeast, there are occasional views of the San Juan Mountains afar and the Stevens Creek Trail in the near distance.

The trail merges with an old fire road at 11.0 miles. In spring, aspen frame the lime green passage.

Reach a signed junction with the Stevens Creek Trail at 11.7 miles, 10,050 feet. Turn left/west. Our route leaves the crest of Missionary Ridge and descends to the Animas River Valley on this westerly ridge.

At 12.0 miles, go left at a fence, leaving the old road and onto a single track. This turn is easy to miss because the road continues while the trail gets faint and even disappears briefly after you pass the fence. In the image below, the Stevens Creek Trail ambles down the ridge, the town of Hermosa is on the valley floor, and the La Plata Mountains rise to almost 13,000 feet.

The trail to Wallace Lake branches right at 14.7 miles. Bear left, staying on the Stevens Creek Trail. At 16.8 miles, at the apex of a switchback that goes on seemingly forever, a mile in each direction, a trail veers right to join the Missionary Ridge Road. While our route stays on the main trail, spotting a shuttle vehicle at the terminus of either of these spurs will shorten the descent considerably. Upon reaching the southern end of the switchback, there remains a 1,200 foot drop over 2.4 miles. At 18.2 miles, go left. Reach the Stevens Creek Trailhead at 19.2 miles, 6,680 feet elevation, after 4,440 feet of climbing.

In the aftermath of the fire, hot enough to burn aspen, wildflowers struggled to regain their rightful place. Thirteen years later, the following spring flowers were in bloom: pussy toes, white violet, purple violet, senecio, golden banner, larkspur, elderberry, lupine, mountain parsley, chokecherry, heart leaf arnica, candytuft, strawberry, bluebell, fleabane daisy, false Solomon's seal, snowberry, current, northern rock jasmine, service berry, buttercup, white peavine, potentilla, osha, evening primrose, scarlet gilia, Indian paintbrush, yellow sweet clover, and deer vetch.

First Fork Trail #727 to Missionary Ridge Trail #543, Out-And-Back
Travel: From the intersection of East Animas Road (CR 250), and Florida Road (CR 240), drive north on CR 240 for 7.3 miles to CR 246. Turn left/north at the sign for Colvig Silver Camps. The excellent dirt road narrows at 8.3 miles. Park here if you do not have good clearance. The remaining 0.7 mile is pocked with deep potholes and ruts; it turns to slimy clay when wet. Open and close the gate at 8.5 miles. Park at the end of the road at 9.0 miles. First Fork shares the parking lot with the Red Creek Trail.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.3 miles, 1,700 feet of climbing.
Time: 2:30 to 4:00
Route: This is the purple-line hike on the map above. Leave the trailhead at 7,840 feet, walking northwest up an abandoned road. In 0.16 mile the track splits. The Red Creek Trail proceeds straight. The First Fork Trail is signed. Go left and immediately cross Red Creek and pass through a gate.  

The trail follows the First Fork drainage all the way to the ridgetop, crossing the brook several times. The Missionary Ridge Fire spared some of this drainage, including stands of the mature aspen. (Chris Blackshear, photo)

Pass a few rock outcrops beside the stream. Walking is sweet and pleasant on this path that gradually lifts one to the ridgecrest at 9,520 feet in 3.6 miles. Intersect the ridge 1.5 miles north of Baldy Mountain, 9,874'. Communication towers crowd the eminence. The La Plata Mountains are visible through the standing dead and leafing aspen.

First Fork is often done as a 10.2 mile loop incorporating Missionary Ridge and Red Creek trails. (Elevation gain is 2,350 feet clockwise and 2,550 feet counterclockwise.) Another option is to spot a vehicle at the Haflin Creek Trailhead and do a stellar 10.7 mile thru hike.

Red Creek Trail #726 to Missionary Ridge Trail #543, Out-And-Back
Travel: The Red Creek Trail originates from the same parking area as First Fork. If the road is too wet to drive, this trail will be too sloppy to hike. The First Fork Trail is a drier option.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.4 miles, 2,100 feet of climbing. The Red Creek Trail-Missionary Ridge-First Fork loop is 10.2 miles.
Time: 2:30 to 4:00
Route: This is the red-line hike on the map above. Leave the trailhead at 7,840 feet and walk northwest up a closed, 4WD road. In 0.16 mile the track splits. The First Fork Trail turns left at a sign. The Red Creek Trail proceeds straight.

Red Creek is a good choice for a hot day. The trail is alongside the creek most of the distance. Hop across the stream at 0.5 mile and then recross over and again. Pockets of the forest were spared by the 2002 fire. Walk in shade or dappled light under giant cottonwood, towering aspen, granddaddy fir, and massive ponderosa. An unexpected feature are the arborglyphs on the oldest aspen. Many date to the 1920's and 30's. Some of the trailside etchings are erotic.

The day we visited, it felt like the Red Creek jungle. It's been a wet year; plants have taken over the trail. We plowed through the drenched foliage. Green gentian are six feet tall. Wood's rose wafted intoxicating perfume, the best smell in the forest.

Butterflies sipped from orange sneezeweed.

The Red Creek Trail is a woodland sensory overload. At 1.8 miles, the valley narrows and the red earth trail threads between red cliffs and verdant hills. Maple and aspen crowd the experience; this would be a brilliant autumn hike.

The pitch kicks up considerably at 3.3 miles. We were in slop to our ankles and may as well have been trying to climb a slip and slide. The view opens to the south. The track makes a few squiggles and gains the ridge at 3.7 miles, elevation 9,840 feet.

The view is not dramatic at this location. To reach the top of the First Fork Trail, turn left/south on the Missionary Ridge Trail. There are excellent vistas of the La Plata Mountains and the San Juan Mountains on the three mile ridge portion.

Haflin North Ridge to Missionary Ridge Trail #543 to Haflin Creek Trail #557
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.0 miles, 3,300 feet of climbing
Time: 4:30 to 5:00
Route: This is the blue-dot climb on the map above. Only people confident in their route-finding and map-reading abilities should attempt this route. Navigation is challenging. Carry the Durango East 7.5 topographical quad. I have climbed several of the off-trail ridges that radiate west from Missionary Ridge. They are typically troubled with cliffs. This route uses the Haflin Creek Trail to get past the initial cliff band.

The Haflin Creek trail levels off and follows the contour at 1.2 miles, elevation 7,630 feet. It passes west of four small, sandstone spill-off drainages. Look for a plausible way to attack the southwest-facing slope to the left of the trail (northeast). There are options; I like just pitching up at about 1.4 miles. The steep ascent is cluttered with deadfall, vegetation, and loose material. Or, you can continue until the trail swings east high above the Haflin drainage at 1.6 miles.  The ridge comes down to meet the trail and the ascent is gentler. After 700 feet of vertical, the climbing eases.

At 8,400 feet, the ridge curves northeast and then zigzags before going due east to intersect the Missionary Ridge Trail. It narrows sufficiently to simplify the route finding--stay on the ridge. The climb is steep in a few places, ridiculously thick with oak brush in others. Wear long pants. For those who enjoy exploring the home front off-trail, this climb is exhilarating. See the Animas River Valley, La Plata Mountains, and the San Juans from a new perspective.

There are a couple of obstacles. Dodge the orange cliff on the north and edge around the crumbly towers on the south side.

Upon reaching Missionary Ridge Trail at 9,750 feet, turn right/south. In half a mile reach the Haflin Creek Trail. Until 2015, there was a wooden sign announcing this essential junction but, alas, it has disappeared. The signpost remains. It is a fast, on-trail, 4.0 miles with a 2,840 foot descent to the trailhead.

Panorama of Missionary Ridge from Animas City Mountain. (THW, photo)


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