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.