Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Raider Ridge: Horse Gulch Trail System

Essence: Durango's trail advocacy group, Durango Trails, has created and maintained a world-class system of trails in Horse Gulch. Featured here are many of the trails on Raider Ridge. The ridge runs the length of Durango from southwest to northeast. It has a sharp western escarpment and slopes gently into Horse Gulch on the east. It gathers stature as it moves north; the highest knob is over 1,300 feet above the Animas River Valley. The hike described runs along the ridgecrest for five miles beginning at the Horse Gulch Trailhead and turning around at the tallest prominence on Raider Ridge. Create a thru-hike to the Skyridge Trailhead with a short shuttle, or loop back to the trailhead. Shorten your loop by descending on one of the many lateral trails intersecting the ridge. Views abound of Durango, the Animas River Valley, La Plata Mountains, and a thin wedge of the San Juan Mountains. Share the trail with mountain bikers.
Travel to Horse Gulch Trailhead: From East 8th Avenue, turn east on 3rd Street. Park in the designated lot on the right. 
Travel to Skyridge Trailhead: From Goeglein Gulch Road, turn east on Jenkins Ranch Road and drive 1.3 miles to the trailhead on the right. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: The loop and spur to Point 7,954' is 9.7 miles with 1,700 feet of elevation gain.  The thru-hike to Skyridge, including the spur, has the same vertical but is only 7.5 miles. Options for lateral trail bailouts are given below.
Time: The loop will take 4:30 to 6:30. The thru-hike is about an hour shorter.
Difficulty: Trail; no exposure; navigation moderate. Please stay on established trails.
Maps: Durango East, Colorado 7.5 USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping; Durango Trails Interactive Maps
Quote: To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday. John Burroughs

As seen from Smelter Mountain, Raider Ridge forms a natural boundary on the east side of town. Horse Gulch is the strike valley between the hogback and Crader Ridge.

Route: It is 4.9 ridgetop miles from the southern end of Raider Ridge to Point 7,954' on the Smokejumper Trail. The loop includes a spur to the highpoint and returns on the Sugar Trail to Horse Gulch Road. The thru-hike leaves the hogback on the Skyline Trail, descending west. The trail system is elaborate; principal lateral trails are described. For brevity, I have omitted several trails in the maze toward the southern end of the ridge, the Ball Lane Connector, and Power Line Trail which runs along the western base of the escarpment.

Horse Gulch Trailhead
From the parking lot at 6,600 feet, walk east up Horse Gulch Road, a mixed-use dirt track. In winter, the shaded initial segment, shown, is the coldest, snowiest, and slickest part of the hike.

Zipline has two entrances. Pass by the first trail joining from the left unless you'd like to see the old quarry where rock was mined for the courthouse and fairgrounds. In just over half a mile, go left on another Zipline branch. The track heads west, following the contour around the southern end of the ridge to eventually link with Power Line Trail.

Half Ridge (alternative route)
Reach the base of Snake Charmer 0.7 mile from the trailhead and hook a sharp right. Alternatively, just feet beyond Snake Charmer, an abandoned rock strewn road intersects Zipline. If you are a ridge purist, scale this steep pitch (Half Ridge) which some people call Babyhead Hill.

Half Ridge levels out at the southernmost knob on Raider Ridge. From this perspective at 7,100 feet, there is a stunning vista of the La Plata Mountains, Perins Peak, and a super sweet view of the south end of town. The trail crashing off the ridge on the east is Flame Out; ignore it. Half Ridge continues and in 0.2 mile Snake Charmer comes in on the right.

Snake Charmer
We will be accessing the ridge via Snake Charmer, a half mile, one way, downhill mountain bike track. In 2013, trail foreman Tyson Swasey of Moab worked with Trails 2000 crew leaders and community volunteers to construct the progressive course. While there are alternative lines with varying degrees of difficulty, there is no easy route down this technical, steep descent. Hikers beware!  Bikes have the right of way--be ready to leap clear of the track. If this makes you squeamish, use Rocky Road or Half Ridge instead.

Catch serious air on ledge drops and stone jumps.

Flagstones were laid so expertly the trail looks like a backyard patio. This stonework bridge incorporates an historic decorative block.

Bikers careen down rock-armored terrain and ride the rocks around banked corners.

While alternative routes tame the course slightly, everyone rides down this slickrock slab. Hikers head up slightly to the right.

Medicine (bikes only)
At 1.3 miles pass by the beginning of another downhill ripper. The half mile track takes off from Snake Charmer at a weathered boulder 100 yards from the top of the ridge. The Gravity Council, a Trails 2000 advisory group, and volunteers reconstructed Medicine in 2015. Grady James and Dusty Bender were trail crew leaders. 

Bikers typically access the ridgeline via Rocky Road before hucking down Medicine. This biker, stopped by the lens, is actually going about 20 mph. I captured him just before he went airborne. Momentum is necessary for survival. Hikers are strongly advised to avoid this trail.

Medicine finishes on a slab slide into Horse Gulch, 0.9 mile from the trailhead.

Snake Charmer intersects the ridgeline at 1.3 miles. Turn north and roll with the landscape. Politely spaced piƱon and Rocky Mountain juniper don't interfere with the continuously evolving westward visual field.

Rocky Road (lateral trail bailout option)
Rocky Road intersects Raider Ridge at 1.7 miles at the top of the "Black Hill Climb." You can't miss this junction because the surface is covered with a soft black coal/shale mix. Geologically, Raider is composed of the Mesa Verde Group. At this location the Menefee Formation is holding up the ridgecrest.

Bikers use Rocky Road to access the ridge. Likewise, it is the easiest and safest choice for hikers. If you are short on time, descend this track to create a classic loop.

The lateral trail descends southeast for half a mile to Horse Gulch Road. A dirt track winds through rocky passages.

The trail splits 0.1 mile from the bottom. The right branch is EZ which accesses lower Medicine. The left branch is the shortest route to the road. It enters Horse Gulch 0.3 mile north of The Corral and one mile from the trailhead.

Extended Ridge
Continuing north from the Rocky Road junction, the next trail segment is Extended Ridge. The constricted and stony spine is the most technical part of the whole trail system and mountain biking is rated Advanced/Expert.

A grove of ponderosa line the west side of the backbone. The ridge is edgy and, while it falls away sharply, the trail platform is generous.

Rollers follow one after another. Top one and see the next. Pictured is Point 7,536'.

Rocky Road (north entrance, lateral trail bailout option)
The north end of Rocky Road leaves the ridge at 2.5 miles in the saddle south of Point 7,536'. This track, 1.4 miles long, makes a descending traverse to the southwest through open terrain. The surface smooths when the trail cuts through big sagebrush. The image below looks up the trail and east to Crader Ridge. Upon reaching the Black Hill Climb, Rocky Road goes left downhill to the Horse Gulch Road.

Hyper Extended Ridge
North of the Rocky Road junction the ridge trail is called Hyper Extended Ridge. In 2008, Mary Monroe, executive director of Trails 2000, negotiated access from Jake Dalla so it could be used for the Single Speed World Championships. The City of Durango purchased the property in 2012.

The trail zigs and zags up the next knoll east of the ridgeline. North of Point 7,536', it is more rugged, and more delightful. Walk along the sandstone rim. Gaps in the rim rock are filled with boulders maneuvered into place to create passage for bikes. Many riders will hike-a-bike across the slanted blocks.

Exposed on the ridgecrest is the Cliff House Formation distinctive for its yellow hue.

Point 7,897' can be glimpsed in the distance. The south entrance to Sugar Trail leaves the ridge shy of this hilltop. Keep going!

Point 7,897'
At 4.1 miles, stand on the most popular viewing platform on Raider Ridge. It is the highest prominence south of the Skyline Trail. Capstones flare into the sky.

The lookout provides a comprehensive view of Animas River oxbows, the Animas City Mountain cuesta, and the La Plata Mountains.

Looking down-ridge, Lake Nighthorse is a blue disk. The Power Line Trail is the remarkably straight line at the ridge base.

Four-Way Trail Junction
Four trails come together at elevation 7,800 feet, 4.2 miles into the hike: Hyper Extended Ridge (south); Skyline (west); Smokejumper Trail (north); and Sugar (east). The intersection resides in a Douglas and white fir forest on BLM property. Our trek to the highpoint of Raider goes out Smokejumper and returns to this junction. Roundtrip, the spur adds 1.4 miles and 250 feet of vertical.

Smokejumper Trail
Smokejumper was built by Trails 2000 and a host of volunteers in late autumn of 2017 to honor Durango native Joseph Philpott. Joe died in an avalanche in 2013 at age 27. At that time he worked as a smokejumper based in Boise, Idaho. The Philpott family placed a commemorative plaque 0.3 mile out the trail on a knoll at 7,880 feet. It's attached to a boulder with a permanent view from the valley floor up the eastern front of the La Plata Range.

Walking north on the ridgecrest trail is glorious--now we can go further than ever before. You can see Missionary Ridge topped by Baldy Mountain and the far end of the river valley encircled by high peaks. Ponderosa are a whole order larger than elsewhere on the ridge, giants really. Wind in the trees creates a song only pines know how to sing.

The trail zips down the knoll on sculpted banked turns and out onto the open ridge.

At 0.7 mile from the four-way, crest Point 7,954'. A few steps north of the highpoint suspended rimrocks thrust into nothingness.

BLM property continues for another 0.6 mile should you chose to continue. The rib is thin so trail builders didn't have much room to work. They ran the trail over a rocky flange. A sign, "Leaving Public Lands" indicates where trail users should turn around.

Back at the four-way junction, loop hikers will go east on Sugar Trail; thru-hikers will go west on Skyline Trail.

Sugar Trail
The curious name is derived from an acronym, SHGR, Skyline to Horse Gulch Road. Mary Monroe hatched the idea to connect the popular treadways. Daryl Crites designed and built the trail in 2015 with a Trails 2000 work crew. In 2017, the moderate link from the four-way was added to bypass the boulder-covered ridgetop. This super sweet trail is rated intermediate for mountain bikers. It is a 1.6 mile, multi-use, two-way track with an average eight percent grade.

Leave the ridge on banked swooping turns. The wide dirt path progresses southerly passing by large yucca and big sagebrush at Gulch level.

The junction with Horse Gulch Road is marked with a massive cairn atop a shale heap 2.3 miles from the Horse Gulch Trailhead.

Go around the pink gate. This image looks back at one biker among many on this December afternoon heading up to well-liked Sugar.

Horse Gulch Road (La Plata County Road 237) has its charms. In winter, rabbit brush has gone to creamy seed, golden grasses are backlit, red willow fill the ditches. In autumn of 2017, the county brought in heavy equipment and alleviated deep ruts in the road while doing storm water management. They plan to revegetate. Pass The Corral 0.7 mile from the trailhead.

Skyline Trail
From the four-way junction the pathway drops 820 feet over 1.9 miles to the Skyridge Trailhead. This pathway is close to perfect--packed dirt with almost no rock, roomy enough to pass, gentle grade, and ceaselessly beautiful. Skyline carries a steady stream of bikers, runners, hikers, and dogs.

Near the top the Douglas fir are as big as their old-growth ponderosa companions. That says a lot because the ponderosa appear taller than the mountains!

Wind down the west-facing slope through boulders cut loose from cliffs above. The vista is constantly shifting as the elevation drops. This image was captured on an open corner. Left of City Reservoir is Hillcrest Golf Club. Perins Peak, Durango's prized landmark, forms a natural boundary on the west side of town.

The Power Line Trail leaves on the left 0.3 mile from the Skyridge Trailhead. Power Line begins as a trail but transitions to a two-track. It is popular with bikers who use it as a vital link in the Horse Gulch trail system. Power Line is an informal cross-country ski trail in winter months.

Arrive at your destination amongst big sagebrush.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Soldier Canyon, Pusch Ridge Wilderness

Essence: Ascend boulder-filled Soldier Canyon beginning from the first hairpin on the Catalina Highway. Return on the Soldier Canyon Trail, one of the oldest treadways in Coronado National Forest. The lower canyon progresses in difficulty: climb waterfalls, a 100 foot wall, and bypass a colossal chockstone at the end of the two-mile-long scramble. Idyllic in autumn, winter, and spring; and delightful when water is flowing. A half-day loop hike. 2022 Note: See the end of this post for a description of upper Soldier Canyon through to Hirabayashi.
Travel: In Tucson, drive east on Tanque Verde Road and turn left on the Catalina Highway. Drive 5.3 miles and park in a large pullout on the right at the Coronado National Forest sign. This is just before the highway hooks a hard right.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 4.6 miles; 1,460 feet of climbing
Time: 3:00 to 4:00
Difficulty: Off-trail, trail; navigation moderate; Class 3 wall with mild exposure; gneiss is slick--wear sticky shoes
Maps: Agua Caliente Hill, AZ 7.5 USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping; Pusch Ridge Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, USDA Forest Service, 1:24,000
Latest Date Hiked: December 6, 2017
Haiku: Boulder pools await,
             A memory of water,
             Chuparosa blooms.
  Thomas Holt Ward

Water flows down multiple courses at the first waterfall series in Soldier Canyon. (THW, photo)
Route: From the Catalina Highway walk north off-trail up Soldier Canyon. Upon reaching a massive chockstone, bypass south and climb a slope to intersect the Soldier Canyon Trail. Descend south on the trail to the highway. Walk down the road to the start. The blue line represents the Soldier Canyon Trail northbound to Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Area. This alternative exit requires a shuttle. See the end of this post for a map of the upper canyon. Note for Rock Climbers: The Hairpin Turn Area is a moderate sport and mixed climbing venue. Link to Mountain Project for a description of the many routes.

From the parking pullout at 3,020 feet, walk up the highway a few paces and cross the road, entering the canyon.

The canyon walls and continuous boulder field is comprised of Santa Catalina Gneiss. Sotol, prickly pear, desert hackberry, bursage, occasional cottonwood and Arizona oak enliven the canyonscape. Saguaro cling to craggy slopes.

The Catalina Mountains have a great many choked canyons. This ephemeral watershed is relatively small so brush is sparse. You see the essence of this landscape elsewhere but rarely are two full miles of obstruction-free clamoring strung together. The improbability of the route, the proximity to town--it's heaven on earth.  

At 0.4 mile, the main fork makes a sharp turn to the northeast/right. My hiking partner has explored the north tributary searching for an egress. He climbed the steep pitch on loose boulders but got repelled at the keyhole in the upper cliffs, shown. The rugged route is not recommended. (THW, photo snapped at the hairpin)

Arrive at the two-tiered waterfall featured in the opening photo. The easiest bypass of the lower fall is upcanyon-left on stair steps. This is an exhilarating class 2 climb.

This image looks down from the upper fall. Tanks are dry after six rainless weeks in autumn, 2017. When flush, water splits into multiple cascades.  (THW, photo)

Half a mile into the hike pass beneath a popular climber's wall on the right.

Unlike many restricted chasms which offer but one slim passage, here freestyle bouldering is multiple choice and every option looks appealing. Sometimes the easiest way is through.

In one mile, a steep and brushy side canyon joins upcanyon-right. The main canyon jogs left. This signals the beginning of gigantic boulder jumbles and an increase in difficulty. Either climb the 20 foot slick, slanted boulder, shown, or bypass on the left. Next, skirt left around a 50 foot-tall monument barring the passageway.

Three tall blocks lean right. Go into the opening, as if into a cave. An attempt to bypass on the left got us tangled up in hackberry. Once in the inviting hole, climb up a razor rock and exit right.

Emerge at the base of another climbing wall and scramble into the clear.

Enter a peaceful paradise upon a sandy beach at the base of water carved gneiss sheets. In the Santa Catalina Mountains forerange, intrusive igneous rock was subjected to high temperatures and pressure within the Earth's crust creating gneiss metamorphic rock. Minerals were separated into bands and while the rock was in a molten state, it was subject to ptygmatic folding creating the white crystalline wavy patterns seen below. (THW, photo looking downstream)

In early December, desert honeysuckle, chuparosa, was broadcasting a profusion of red-orange trumpets. (THW, photo)

The gradient and challenge ease for a time. (THW, photo looking back)

At 1.3 miles a side canyon enters upcanyon-left. The main canyon curves to the right and takes you along with it. Pass another tributary entering on the left at 1.6 miles. This final canyon segment is exceptionally beautiful, climaxing in a natural theater with a wide sandy floor and seating on a gently rising stone slope. Approach a 100 foot-tall wall, shown. (THW, photo)

The Class 3 wall has some exposure. If you wish to turn around here, descending the canyon is no more difficult than arising. As seen in the image below, there is a waterfall on the right. The canyon extends further on the left into a narrow crack. Enter the cleft and climb the wall on your right. (THW, photo)

Part way up, move right on a ledge back around toward the main fall. Or, scout around for a route that suits you better. This image was shot looking downcanyon from midway up the wall. (THW, photo)

Here's a look at the final scramble.

Walk on bedrock encased within stone walls. The channel narrows as it bends south. A show-stopper chockstone marks the definitive end of our passage within the canyon.

Ascend the sidewalk on the left.

It soon becomes obvious that there is no way to penetrate deeper into the canyon. Enclosed on three sides, this is a wild, crazy and dramatic end to the lower canyon. The rock radiates power. (THW, photo)

Looking out from within. (THW, photo)

To leave the canyon, walk back down the sidewalk and continue a few more paces. Watch for a viable escape route downcanyon-left. While climbing the steep, brushy hillside, be cautious for there is some exposure. A cliff band near the top of the 200 foot climb will push you to the right. Emerge onto a wide and flat rock platform in Soldier Basin at 2.0 miles, 4,400 feet. The Soldier Canyon Trail is on the shelf just feet away. (If you are going on to Hirabayashi, you may back up and exit the canyon on the west, less exposure, more brush.)

The return route goes south on the Soldier Canyon Trail. However, it is well worth the 0.4 mile spur to peer into the abyss above the chockstone even though you can't catch a glimpse of the monster.

The Soldier Canyon Trail was constructed over 100 years ago and is one of the original footpaths on the Santa Catalina front range. In the 1930's, Trico Electric Cooperative strung up a powerline to the Federal Prison Camp at what is now Gordon Hirabayashi Campground. Prisoners labored to build the Mt. Lemmon Highway. During World War II, some of the prisoners were conscientious objectors. In 1942, Dr. Gordon Hirabayashi challenged the constitutionality of incarcerating Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was convicted and sentenced to serve at the prison camp now named in his honor. Walking down the trail you will see severed power poles, left where they lay.

The trail parallels Soldier Canyon for a time before turning southeast into a small drainage. Vegetation is classic Sonoran: ocotillo, sotol, prickly pear, barrel cactus, mesquite, whitethorn acacia, and cholla: pencil, teddybear, and staghorn. Saguaro grow more numerous as you descend. The track becomes increasingly rubble-filled as it dives toward the roadway.

Pass out of the Pusch Ridge Wilderness at 3.6 miles and hit the pavement at 3.8. It is a fast, pleasant walk down the Catalina Highway on a good shoulder. As you near the hairpin there is a nice view into Soldier Canyon.

Upper Soldier Canyon
Essence: Turn Soldier Canyon into a thru-hike to Hirabayashi. Or, simply do the upper loop as a short, peaceful stroll coupled with playful scrambling. Pure pleasure!
Travel: Drive up the Catalina Highway and turn left at the sign for Gordon Hirabayashi Recreation Area, Mile Marker 7.3. The trailhead is 0.3 mile from the highway.  
Distance and Elevation Gain: For the loop, 3.0 miles; 650 feet
Total Time: 1:45 - 2:30
Difficulty: Trail; Class 2+ scrambling with mild exposure
Route: From Hirabayashi Trailhead, walk southwest on the Arizona Trail (AZT) and transfer to the Soldier Canyon Trail. Upon reaching the creek, leave the trail and walk up the canyon.

The trailhead, elevation 4,840 feet, is on the west side of the parking lot. Begin on the AZT (Molino Basin Trail) and transfer to the signed Soldier Canyon Trail in a quarter mile. An elder oak tree minds the junction. The footpath rises gently and crosses into the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. Take a spur trail to the high point of the hike at 4,880 feet, 0.5 mile. From the overview, look through the canyon’s wedge to Tucson and Baboquivari Peak. The Soldier Canyon gorge is in the chasm below. Notice the climbers on the wall, image-center.

The trail makes a steady descent to the canyon floor and crosses the creek at 1.3 miles, elevation 4,380 feet. Leave the trail here and turn upstream. While there are some brushy places, most of the hindering vegetation was blown out in the 2021 monsoons. The experience is positively sublime rising through the lovely grassland basin on gneiss stairsteps. A side canyon joins upcanyon-left at 1.7 miles.

Confront the first of four obstacles at 2.1 miles. The 20-foot pouroff and fall initiates the scrambling series in the upper canyon. Climb up the rock, just left of the falls. It is exposed for the first 20 feet with good traction. Then work the ledges to finish the bypass.

Next, is a low waterfall plugged by a chockstone. Bypass upcanyon-left. (THW, photo)

The gorge constricts but progress continues.

Water spills over stone and swishes into a pool. The pond ripples. Light dances on a vertical sheer wall. The bypass is upcanyon-right (off-image). It might look intimidating but it is welcoming. Don’t over-climb. Descend back onto the canyon floor beside a sculpted dead tree. (THW, photo)

We wrestled with the fourth and final obstacle at 2.6 miles but were thwarted. The exit from the gorge is upcanyon-left. Walk up the ramp (image-left) and then scale blocks for 80 feet. Once free of the gorge walk on a social trail back to the venerable oak tree and close the loop.