Saturday, May 20, 2017

Ladder Canyon, Spencer Canyon Grid, Milagro Passage: GSENM

Essence: Cross vast expanses of sandstone while walking beside a geologic maze and beneath a string of closely-packed discontinuous and bizarrely-shaped prominences. This hike has three options. The central feature is the walk down to the Escalante River and up "Ladder Canyon." On the way, visually tour the "Spencer Canyon Grid," a series of perpendicular, technical cracks bisecting "Spencer Canyon." On the return, walk through the "Milagro Passage" to intersect the Upper Sand Slide route coming from the Escalante River. This passageway is a rare landscape connector with vertical, sheer glossy walls. Spend the day in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Travel: Old Sheffield Road is off Highway 12 between Escalante and Boulder, UT. At mile marker 70 (where a cattle guard crosses the highway), turn south on a dirt road. Start measuring from here. At 5.8 miles in Big Spencer Flat, the main road goes right/south. Take the left fork trending east. The parking area was moved back a quarter mile in 2017 and is now 6.65 miles from Highway 12. It is a good road when dry, suitable for 2WD with good clearance. Check road conditions by calling the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center: (435) 826-5499.
Distance and Elevation Gain: Ladder Canyon, 9.2 miles; 1,500 feet of climbing
Spencer Canyon Grid adds 1.6 miles
Milagro Passage adds 2 miles and 600 feet of vertical
Time: 6:00 to 8:00
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation challenging; mild exposure on the two ladders
Map: Red Breaks, UT 7.5 USGS Quad
Reference: Canyoneering 3: Loop hikes in Utah's Escalante, Steve Allen, 1997. 
Latest Date Hiked: May 20, 2017
History of the ladders: Steve Allen noted that the ladders were installed by a youth group several years before his book was published in 1997. They were sturdy and reliable in May, 2017 but decide for yourself whether they are safe. A bypass route is described.

Route: This hike offers three options, all of which can be done in a day. The hike to the Escalante River via Ladder Canyon is the black-line route. Spencer Canyon Grid is the red-line route, and Milagro Passage is represented in blue.

Spencer Canyon Grid
The optional Grid tour meets back up with the standard Ladder Canyon route east of Ponderosa Pine Valley. Not only is this a rare opportunity to study a right-angled world but you will bypass a mile of sand slogging. From the parking area, elevation 5,760 feet, walk east on the road. Within 0.4 mile, leave the road and head northeast crossing Big Spencer Flat. At once, the landscape is dreamy and sureal with iron concretions covering Navajo Sandstone painted in garnet and cream-colored stripes. In just 1.4 miles, stand at the mazeway of Spencer Canyon and Fork 1. In this image, Spencer Canyon is a narrow, dark crack running west to east. (THW, photo)

The scene looks like a whole-earth tic-tac-toe board. To best view the Grid, stay close to the south head of the tributary canyons while moving generally east. The massive west wall of Fork 1 appears as a tapestry woven into a fin.

Curious, my hiking partner dropped into Fork 1. After a bit of brush thrashing and boulder dodging he arrived at a 60 foot barrier fall with a fixed rope at the rappel point. This was followed by another pouroff and pool. (THW, photo)

A thin, delicate hoodoo balances on the western precipice of Fork 2. (THW, photo)

Gashes run in four directions and there is a strong sense of cliff suck in this exceedingly dramatic slice and dice earthscape. Pictured is the north crack of Fork 2 piercing the opposing mesa. (THW, photo)

Pass a wall alcove above Spencer Canyon that is moments away from transitioning into an arch. (THW, photo)

According to Michael Kelsey (Non-technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, 2011), there is a route into Spencer Canyon through the Fork 3 slot. The dark slit has a series of downclimbs at dropoffs. Once in Spencer Canyon, hike west to the bottom of Fork 1 before returning on the incoming route.

Just north of Fork 3, a minor highpoint at elevation 5,520 feet affords a view toward the collection of wild protuberances west of Ladder Canyon. Head Fork 3 and walk south to intersect the standard black-line route east of Ponderosa Pine Valley at about 2.8 miles. (THW, photo)

Ladder Canyon
Continuing east, cross "Super Tanker Canyon" on a stone rib. In spring, large potholes are flush with clear water.
(THW, photo)

A tenth of a mile further east cross the South Fork. It emanates from the northern escarpment of Red Breaks near Point 6,015'. A softly rounded watercourse plunges over a 200 foot drop into Spencer Canyon.

Skirt a small sandstone dome to its south on a two-foot wide sidewalk.

Note: On our first exploratory trip to Ladder Canyon, we probed two access points just west of Point 5,756'. The most promising and beautiful was via a spectacular, small side canyon where a vertical wall meets a sheeted floor at a crack. A Class 3 downclimb accessed the floor of upper Ladder Canyon. Very soon we encountered a 30 foot drop in the defile and retreated.

The proven route continues east along the base of a second dome. Enter a small, north-trending drainage on a sand dune. It directs into a broad, shimmering, wide open basin, shown below. On our first trip we were so enthralled we walked down to a high, dramatic pouroff, worth the extra steps. However, for this route stay fairly high and cross the north ridge of an unmarked promontory on sheets of sandstone. Enter a large slickrock basin with three notable features: a wide gap, the Milagro Passage; a crack tributary of Ladder Canyon; and a gentle tributary of Ladder Canyon at the base. Head the crack canyon and walk beside its east rim to the floor, elevation 5,180 feet. 

Walk down the soft, sandy tributary for 0.2 mile, cross a small side canyon, and arrive at the rim of the main fork of Ladder Canyon. This route proceeds counterclockwise, taking the Ladders Bypass to the Escalante and then proceeding back upcanyon and climbing the ladders. The ladders may be difficult to locate going the opposite direction. To follow this bypass route, stay rather high above Ladder Canyon and aim for a prominent red hill southwest of the Escalante. The image below was taken from the bypass route. Click on the image and find the ladders braced against the sandstone wall below the barrier fall.

Once atop the red hill, probe the area and find a cairned route down a mild friction pitch mixed with rubble. Cairns lead into a short, low Class 3 gully, access to the river. The image below shows the fin marking the gully. (THW, photo)

The Escalante River, elevation 4,940 feet, is a riparian habitat with massive cottonwoods, big sage, and brushy entanglements. To get into Ladder Canyon walk upstream for about 200 feet. The river was raging, milky, cold, and waist deep in places. Exit upriver-left. Follow the small channel coming out of Ladder Canyon hugging the wall. Walk 0.4 mile up the brushy drainageway. The ladders are located upcanyon-right, just before a massive pouroff. They are securely bolted to the sandstone wall. Most people will enjoy the ladder climb but there is a hard point drilled into stone at the top should anyone need a rope. (THW, photo)

From the ladders, climb a hill and then drop back into the canyon. If you descend too soon, you will encounter a pouroff and pool, easily bypassed. Go upcanyon and intersect the incoming route.

Note: We had read that it was possible to follow the main fork of Ladder Canyon to its upper end. So we explored two forks, got squeezed in narrow defiles, and climbed the sandstone rib between them. We could see into the upper section of Ladder Canyon from our overview. Point 5,756' is image-right. A convoluted, trashy jumble of rubble and bedrock led to the 30 feet drop we'd encountered from the top. A good climber might be able to get up the left side of the exposed obstacle. (THW, photo)

Milagro Passage 
This remarkable and optional trek, the blue-line route, is well worth the additional effort. The image below shows the pass-through gap. The in-coming route tracks along the crack in this image and exits right. Climb the gentle sandstone slope to the northwest entrance and enter a 50-foot wide corridor. 

Framing the passage are towering, sheer, carmine walls. (THW, photo)

This image looks back through the gap. (THW, photo)

We never dreamed the passage would exit the other side of the ridge but it did. Descend a short rubble-filled slope and emerge onto a sweet stone floor bearing southeast. Join up with the Upper Sand Slide route coming from the Escalante River, right of the two domes, shown below.

Hold elevation while swinging right/southwest. Note the distinctive liesegang rings, red and white concentric circles. Pass in front of Points 5,932' and 5,821'.

Keep circling, now to the northwest, passing a heavily cross-bedded butte. To avoid dune fields, stay on the stone skirts at the base of the prominences.

Rejoin the standard route. To return to the Old Sheffield Road parking area head due west and enter Ponderosa Pine Valley. Walk beside a dozen venerable, old growth trees. (THW, photo)

Locate the road emerging from the northwest corner of the slickrock, marked with a cairn. The last 1.3 miles is a deep sand slog, a small price for a glorious day.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Twin Buttes East, 7,737', West, 7,700', and Trail System, Durango, Colorado

Essence: Scale Twin Buttes, East and West, local landmarks on the western fringe of Durango. Both promontories are accessed via steep and loose pitches. The buttes and surrounding trails are located in city open space. Share the trails with mountain bikers, hikers, and equestrians. Hikes that adhere to the beautifully crafted and maintained trails are also described. Birds and wildflowers are abundant in springtime, including Grace's warbler and gigantic masses of arresting and fragrant lupine.
Travel: Trailhead parking is 1.6 miles west of the US 160/550 intersection. Park in a dirt lot on the north side of Hwy 160 just past the Giant gas station.
Distance and Elevation Gain:
Twin Buttes East: 6.6 miles; 1,300 feet of climbing
Twin Buttes West: add half a mile and 240 feet of vertical
Cliffrock Loop (2.7 miles): 7.3 mile stem and loop with 800 feet of elevation gain
Time: 2:30 to 4:00
Difficulty for the buttes: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; steep, loose, and brushy
Map: Durango West, Colorado 7.5 USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: May 7, 2017
Quote: Every green natural place we save saves a fragment of our sanity and gives us a little more hope that we have a future. Wallace Stegner.

Returning home from journeys afar, to see Twin Buttes, I've crossed the threshold.

Route: The black-line route is the quickest approach to the summit of Twin Buttes East. The blue-line route tackles Twin Buttes West. For those who prefer to stay on trails, the Cliffrock Loop is depicted in red and the west-side trails are purple.

The Twin Buttes Trails System includes ten miles of hiking and biking trails on 580 acres of city open space. The City of Durango began acquiring land adjacent to the Twin Buttes project and adjoining the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area in 2009. Further easements were negotiated with the Twin Buttes Development. Trails 2000 volunteers planned and crafted the trails in 2012; they continue to maintain the treadway.

Seasonal closure for wildlife protection is December 1 to April 15. Climbing the buttes is off-limits during that time. Trails below the Green Tank remain open year-round.

A map of the trail system is located at the trailhead, elevation 6,658 feet. Study carefully--junctions are not labeled in the interior. However, smart phone users may access the Trails 2000 Interactive Map remotely. The Twin Buttes Trail, a dirt single track, switchbacks up a south-facing slope above the highway on a solid platform. Mountain bikers far out-number hikers and runners. Start early, especially on weekends. While hikers have the right of way, it is awkward for bikers to unclip and get going again so I always step aside to allow them unbroken passage.

In spring, the wildflower display is diverse and in places, showy. Naturalist John Bregar identified four dozen blooming plants in May, 2017. On the initial hillside look for a rich array of stemless evening primrose, deep blue flax, yellow bladderpod, pink filaree, and several species of milkvetch. Flowering shrubs include sweet-scented bitterbrush and cliff Fendlerbush, as well as serviceberry and chokecherry.

In a quarter mile the trail segues onto a two-track briefly. The trail system spins on and off a maze of old wagon roads and a railroad grade that accessed the historic coal operations at Boston Mine and the mining camp at Perins City. Watch for scattered chunks of coal on these abandoned haul roads. A tenth of a mile further along, hang a sharp right back onto the single track.

The grade eases and the path wanders into a shady forest which makes this passage pleasant even in summer months. Twin Buttes trails are in the gradational boundary between upper piƱon-juniper woodland and the lower montane ecozone characterized by ponderosa pine. Among gamble oak groves are both Rocky Mountain and Utah juniper, and box elder. There is an immense Douglas fir with a lightning scar down the length of its trunk. There are four varieties of sage; pinch some leaves and take a whiff. 

Living in the open woods are patches of golden banner, several varieties of parsley, wild iris, fairy candelabra, bluebells, and flamboyant arrowleaf balsamroot flashing all about.

It is an incredibly pleasant stroll through a wondrous display of nature at the edge of town. Boulders are big. Birds drown out the highway. John Bregar identified 33 birds: delicate song birds, vibrant-hued birds, and raptors. Each bird is a player in the cacophonous orchestra. See the end of this essay for a complete bird list.

Walking on the thin dirt path is an intimate natural experience. Trail engineers deliberately wound the path around massive ponderosa and banked whoop-de-doos. On a bicycle, it feels like a roller coaster. The trail system is rated intermediate for mountain bikers. Even expert riders will be challenged on the west-side trails.

At 1.5 miles, go left onto the old railroad grade. This keeps you on the Twin Buttes Trail and off private property. In a short distance get back on the single track which shoots off to the right. Cross a sturdy plank bridge. The Twin Buttes Trail stays to the right of the Green Tank.

Pass through a meadowland with tassel-eared squirrels, a ponderosa pine obligate species. In this park-like setting and elsewhere in Twin Buttes be watchful for rattlesnakes who favor this region. Twin Buttes East looks mighty with cliffs armoring its southern escarpment.

The junction with the Cliffrock Loop at 2.3 miles is simply marked with a sign pointing to trails in two directions. This delightful loop is described below. To climb Twin Buttes East, turn left/west on the old railroad bed. At a 4X4 post, 2.7 miles, leave the road and go right on Upper Twin Buttes Trail. Before this sweet track existed it was a miserable oak bash to the summit of Twin Buttes East. While easy on hikers, mountain bikers call the 200 foot climb Vomit Hill because the grade never lets up.

Twin Buttes East
Reach a flat clearing on the northeast side of Twin Buttes East at 7,460 feet, 3.0 miles. This is a treasured location with views west to the La Plata Mountains and northeast to Perins Peak, a stone's throw away. Leave the trail to initiate the final push to the summit.

To skirt the worst of the oak thickets, walk south about 50 yards holding the contour on a game trail. The aspect shifts and there is less brush and more rock to work with. Locate an informal trail up the steep pitch. Footing is slippery and rocks are on the loose. Trekking poles are helpful.

Almost the entire hike takes place in the Mancos Shale, the ultra-thick predominate formation in Southwest Colorado. The boulders seen below have tumbled off the scarp band, making the ascent playful.

John Bregar identified the thin rampart armoring the summits of both buttes as Point Lookout Sandstone, named for the jutting northern platform at Mesa Verde National Park. The formation overlies Mancos Shale. It is the lowest member of the Mesa Verde Group, deposited in the Cretaceous era as the Western Interior Seaway receded. Upon reaching the caprock, move right to utilize a weakness in the cliffs.

Crest the flat-topped summit at 3.3 miles. The radiating vista is pure Durango: Perins Peak, Hogback, Raider Ridge, Telegraph Hill, the La Plata range and a sliver of Mountain View Crest. While Smelter Mountain may look taller, Twin Buttes East tops it by eleven feet. The peak register has several notebooks dating back decades.

It is a temptation to head directly over to Twin Buttes West, shown below, but it is a no-go. A nasty brush plunge puts you at the top of formidable Point Lookout cliffs.

Retrace your steps to the clearing at 3.6 miles. If you are not climbing Twin Buttes West, return as you came, or explore one of west-side trails detailed below.

Upper BC&F
From the clearing go west on the Upper Twin Buttes Trail. Beside the trail grows an astonishing, uncommon woodland star, a white saxifrage with multiple slender petals. Be sure to take note of the little clump of aspen tucked between the buttes on their north side, a hidden relic grove, pictured below. A two-track crosses the trail at 3.9 miles. Turn left, circle Twin Buttes on the west and close the loop at the 4X4 post one mile from the clearing.

Upper Ed & Flo onto Mid Traverse 
This is an alternative west-side tour. Start out as above and upon reaching the two-track continue straight. Walk toward the La Platas Mountains and then dive and twist into a boulder run-out zone. Come in the spring when tall, aromatic lupine put on an opulent show along Lupine Alley. Segue onto the Mid Traverse. It is 2.1 miles from the clearing to the Green Tank.

Twin Buttes West
You really have to want this one because it requires a brushy approach followed by a loose scramble. Few people make the short trek which heightens the cool factor. The shortest route from East to West is to downclimb on the upcoming route and just before hitting the clearing, curve around the north side of East. There's no way to avoid the annoying brush; wear long pants. Climb the unstable east-facing slope from the saddle.

Summit at 3.8 miles. The peak resister is just a few sheets of paper reaching back to the 1970's. Twin Buttes West presents a nice perspective on its slightly taller, cliff-ringed twin.

Plunge 380 feet off the east slope, south of the upcoming route and contact the Upper BC&F Trail. Turn east and rejoin the approach track at the 4X4 post.

Cliffrock Loop
The 2.7 mile loop makes a nice add-on to any hike in the Twin Buttes trail system. For those who prefer trails, this is an ideal 7.3 mile stem and loop from the trailhead, spanning two to three hours. Follow the directions above to the junction of the Twin Buttes Trail and the Cliffrock Loop at 2.3 miles. Continue straight/north and hike the loop counterclockwise.

The bucolic pathway rests on the tableland south of Perins Peak. There is a grand sense of openness cherished in the American West. Patches of gamble oak rise up from grassland. Towering, old growth ponderosa commune with each other from a polite distance. Pass by a perfectly symmetrical elder juniper. At the eastern edge of the hummock-laden table, the land drops away at an overview informally named Pleasure Point. While the view spans far and wide, most captivating is the deeply fluted shale on the rarely seen west side of the Hogback, a severe beauty.

The trail draws ever closer to Perins Peak. The eastern cliff face, pictured below, is Point Lookout Sandstone. Capping the highest part of the ridge is Cliff House Sandstone, the youngest member of the Mesa Verde Group. The formation was named for the Ancestral Puebloan habitation sites built in alcoves typically found in this layer. Cliff House Sandstone is underlain by the Menefee Formation where quality coal is found, hence the coal mine on the southwest side of the mountain. The Menefee is the source for the coal shoveled into Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad locomotives. 
The single track swings due wast and takes aim at Twin Buttes East

The Cliffrock Loop intersects the Twin Buttes Trail at 4.8 miles; turn left. Close the loop at 5.0 miles and make a hard right to return to the trailhead.

John Bregar's Twin Buttes Bird List, May, 2017
Turkey Vulture,
Red-tailed Hawk
Mourning Dove
Eurasian Collared Dove
White-throated Swift
Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Northern Flicker
Dusky Flycatcher
Plumbeous Vireo
Violet-green Swallow
Barn Swallow
Steller's Jay
Woodhouse's Scrub Jay
Black-billed Magpie
Common Raven
Black-capped Chickadee
Mountain Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Western Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
Townsend's Solitaire
American Robin
Virginia's Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Grace's Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Spotted Towhee
Western Tanager
Black-headed Grosbeak
House Finch

Additional Twin Buttes Early Season Flowers
whiplash daisy
New Mexico groundsel
toadflax penstemon
false dandelion (native)
tansy mustard
native thistle
white peavine
fringed puccoon
mountain mahogany
orange globemallow
winged buckwheat
mule ears