Saturday, June 29, 2019

Dry Fork Loop, High Point, Peak 9,589'

Essence: An easy-going, family-friendly, relaxing hike on buff trails close to Durango. The stem and loop incorporates three trails, including a segment of the Colorado Trail. The Dry Fork of Lightner Creek bifurcates the loop located on a rising landform with Junction Creek on the east and Deep Creek on the west. The hike is wholly contained within a shady ponderosa pine forest; flowers are especially good in early summer. This hike does not boast broad vistas but there are occasional views of the La Plata Mountains and local landmarks. The loop is popular with mountain bikers on weekends. For more miles, take the Colorado Trail to High Point or climb Peak 9,589'. The trails are on U.S. Forest Service property in the San Juan National Forest.
Travel to Dry Fork Loop Trailhead: Start measuring from the US 550/160 intersection in Durango. Travel 3.3 miles on US 160 West and turn right on Lightner Creek Road, La Plata County Road 207. At 4.3 miles, turn right onto Dry Fork Road, CR 208, a graded dirt road suitable for all vehicles. Take the right fork at 6.3 miles. At 7.1 miles, a sign for Hoffeins Connection Trail directs left into a large dirt lot.
Distance and Elevation: Dry Fork Loop is 9.1 miles, 1,500 feet of elevation gain; High Point spur adds 7.0 miles round trip and 1,000 feet of vertical; Peak 9,589' adds 0.6 mile round trip with 550 feet of climbing.
Total Time: 3:00 to 5:00 for loop; add about 3:00 for High Point and Peak 9,589'
Difficulty: Trail; off-trail to Peak 9,589'; navigation easy; no exposure
Maps: Durango West; Monument Hill, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quads, or Apogee Mapping; Trails Illustrated No. 144, Durango, Cortez
Winter Closure, December 1 through April 15: The land on both sides of CR 208 is within Perins Peak State Wildlife Area. Public access is prohibited during the closure period which is intended to protect wintering big-game and spring-nesting peregrine falcons. While Dry Fork Loop is on U.S. Forest Service property, the access road and parking lot are in the Perins Peak SWA. The closure on the east side of CR 208 is extended through July 31. This includes the Dry Gulch Trail and Perins Peak.
Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars
of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment.
Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

A simple wooden sign announces the Dry Fork Trail, a roll-bar ramp crosses the cattle guard, a weathered red fence swings open for hikers, and a dirt trail wanders off toward Silver Mountain in the La Plata range. The trailhead is classic American West.

Route: Hike northwest on the Dry Fork Trail. Mountain bikers typically ride the Dry Fork Loop clockwise; hikers are advised to go counterclockwise. At the junction with Hoffeins Connection turn right. At the juncture with the Colorado Trail (CT) do a short spur to Gudy's Rest and then walk west. Return southeast on the Dry Fork Trail. To add miles take the CT north to High Point, the blue-line route. To summit Peak 9,589' climb the north ridge.

Dry Fork Trail #616
The Dry Fork Trail is four miles long. It begins at the Dry Fork Road and ends at the CT-Junction Creek Trail #553. From the trailhead, elevation 7,380 feet, pass through the gate and enter the San Juan National Forest. The loop is multi-use, enjoyed by hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and equestrians. The lowest point on this hike is the parking lot. You will be going uphill at the front end of the hike no matter how you wrap it. The undulating nature of the uphills makes it about as easy as a climb gets. The image below looks back toward the trailhead. Close by in the southeast is North Perins Peak.

The trail bears northwest along a tributary of the Dry Fork of Lightner Creek. Red twigged willow and a pretty grove of aspen sip from the stream. The West's ubiquitous rabbitbrush, Gambel oak, and ponderosa pine are on the slopes rolling up from the drainage. On a cold day in November, I was the only one on the trail and there was a sense of peaceful, monochromatic contentment. In spring, the scene was lively with travelers and the shiny new growth of oak and aspen contrasted with the deep forest green of the ponderosa.

Start climbing gently, cross another hefty roll-bar cattle guard and leave the drainage.

Hoffeins Connection Trail #611
At 0.8 mile, 7,620 feet, reach the junction with Hoffeins Connection Trail # 611. While there is a sign for the Dry Fork Trail which continues on, in 2019 the sign was missing for the Hoffeins 1.3 mile link trail. Mountain bikers conventionally ride the loop clockwise. Walkers and runners are advised to turn right so you have a heads up as bikes approach.

The Gambel oak is making an effort to straighten after a big winter in Southern Colorado. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Cross the Dry Fork at 1.0 mile. True to its name this tributary typically carries a small amount of water, if any. Openings in the trees afford nice views of the North Perins Peak and Perins Peak cuesta. Once the snow is gone and the ground warms masses of mule's ears begin flowering.

Colorado Trail - Junction Creek Trail #553  
Reach the junction with the CT at 2.1 miles, elevation 8,000 feet. The Junction Creek Trail is the final segment of the 486 mile cross-state trek. The 4,860 foot drop from Kennebec Pass (11,740 feet) to the Junction Creek-Colorado Trailhead (6,880 feet) is the greatest single altitude change on the CT. Turn right for the 0.4 mile roundtrip spur to Gudy's Rest.

For thru-hikers on the CT, Gudy's Rest, located four miles from trail's end, is a celebratory place. A thick plank bench looks out over Junction Creek canyon and the west slopes of Barnes Mountain. Off-image is the town of Durango.

A wooden plaque pays tribute to Gudy Gaskill, the genius and tireless champion of the CT. Durango Trails carries on Gudy's legacy. The trail advocacy organization builds and maintains an ever-growing vast network of trails in the region. In addition to their CT upkeep they are the guardians for every foot of trail on the Dry Fork Loop.

Return to the Hoffeins junction and turn right, staying on the CT.

We found bear and cougar tracks imprinted on the soft dirt path. Flowers were especially plentiful in June of 2019. In addition to lavish and aromatic lupine fields we saw: Rocky Mountain milkvetch, fleabane daisy, stemless evening primrose, wild iris, larkspur and delphinium, serviceberry, snowberry, chokecherry, elderberry, mule's ear, pussy toes, mouse ear chickweed, senecio, white peavine, white violet, white geranium, golden banner, bluebell, Geyer's onion and taper-tip onion, mountain parsley, woods' rose, Rocky Mountain penstemon and toadflax penstemon, cinquefoil, Solomon's seal, bedstraw, meadow rue, clematis, Indian paintbrush, heart leaf arnica, osha, red columbine, and blue columbine. (THW, photo)

Day hikers keep company with old growth ponderosa while strolling along the CT. (THW, photo)

Pass by a magnificent trailside ponderosa and then a fenceline at 3.6 miles. Cross a typically bone-dry north tributary of Dry Fork. Colorado blue spruce, Douglas fir, and aspen are sheltered in the drainage. The track bears south for a short distance. Look afar to Animas City Mountain and the Missionary Ridge Rockfall.

The treadway rounds a southeast ridge and then holds to the 8,600 foot contour west-bound for a mile. Top out at 4.8 miles, elevation 8,660 feet. You can practically reach out and touch Silver Mountain only four miles away as the crow flies. Big boulders bounding the path add interest while descending to a fork of Deep Creek, a principal tributary of Lightner Creek.

Dry Fork Trail
Denver anyone? At 5.1 miles, after a mere 2.6 miles on the CT, this loop hangs a left on the Dry Fork Trail. The High Point spur is described later.
The south-bound path tracks high above Deep Creek. After a string of exceptional drought years it is a relief to be consumed by luxuriant new growth among the deciduous population in 2019. (THW, photo)

There are a bevy of old roads and signs.

Swing around for a glimpse of the upper slopes of Baldy Peak, the shortest mountain in the La Platas at 10,866 feet. (THW, photo)

In autumn, oak is cloaked in the fiery flaming hues of fall. The trail tracks a log and limb fenceline secured with taught barbed wire. At 8.3 miles, watch for the now familiar junction with Hoffeins Connection. Make a hard right, staying on the Dry Fork Trail. If you miss the turn you'll find yourself on a Möbius strip.

High Point, 9,600 Feet
From the junction of the Dry Fork Trail and the CT it is 3.5 miles to High Point with roughly 1,000 feet of elevation gain. This is a popular spur for mountain bikers and hikers alike. Walking is easy on a smooth dirt single track. The CT swings around the south ridge of forested Peak 9,589' and then bears north. The trail utilizes an old roadbed that was laboriously cleared through a chunky scree field. (THW, photo)

Trees part to reveal the east slopes of Silver Mountain.

Whereas the Dry Fork features ponderosa this segment of trail wanderers through aspen glades. Ferns and snowberry live under the trees. 

Round Road End Canyon and soon arrive at High Point. It is located on a left bend just before the CT loses a couple hundred feet to head First Trail Canyon before resuming its climb to Kennebec Pass. Junction Creek is canyon cutting 1,000 below. Junction Creek Road can be seen on the west slope of Barnes Mountain. (THW, photo)

Peer through the trees to see the north end of the East Block of the La Plata Mountains. Pictured below starting on the right is Olga Little Mountain and Peak 12,101', Cumberland Mountain, The Notch, Snowstorm Peak, and Lewis Mountain.

Peak 9,589' 
This mountain looks pretty appealing on the topo. It is the highest prominence between Deep Creek and Junction Creek. Our plan was to climb the north ridge to the peak (pictured), traverse over Point 9,421', and continue on the south ridge back to the CT. However, the oak brush was fierce and punishing. The ridge was not open and desirable so we gave up at the saddle between the prominences and dropped steeply west to the trail. If you intend to climb the peak, wear long pants.

Note: In 2020, some friends came at the peak from the south. They climbed north-northwest from the CT to Point 9,421'. Then they avoided the worst of the brush by staying below the ridge on its east side to the summit.

We left the CT not quite two miles south of High Point at 9,040 feet. Brush was intense, there was deadfall to climb over, and the pitch was very steep. We stumbled on a helpful big game trail that went straight up the ridge.

We summited after climbing 550 feet in 0.3 mile. The peak register was placed in June, 2019. From the crest look out over Durango, Raider and Crader Ridges, and Perins Peak.

Rising high across the Lightner Creek watershed is Baldy Peak, Deadwood and Silver Mountains, and Bald Knob. (THW, photo)

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

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. The mountain is only two miles due east of Mayday but you cannot get there from the hamlet because of private property limitations. This all-day hike approaches from Lightner Creek and is wholly contained within public lands (Perins Peak State Wildlife Area and U.S. National Forest). Navigation prowess is essential.   
Travel: Measure from 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 (SWA). 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.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 16.0 miles; 5,150 feet of climbing
Time: 9:30 to 11:30
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail, abandoned mining road; significant navigation challenge; no exposure; brushy; carry enough food and water for a full day of hiking.
Winter Closure: December 1 through April 15. The land on both sides of CR 208 is within Perins Peak SWA. Public access is prohibited during the closure period which is intended to protect wintering big-game and spring-nesting peregrine falcons. Dogs must be on leash. The closure on the east side of CR 208 is extended through July 31. This includes the Dry Gulch Trail and Perins Peak.
Maps: Durango West, Hesperus, Colo. 7.5' USGS Quads, or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: June 25, 2019
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 in 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. After a long approach climb the eastern flank of the mountain.

Route: From the Deep Creek Trailhead hike west along a tributary of Dry Fork. The trail passes from Perins Peak SWA into U.S. National Forest. Cross Deep Creek and climb off-trail northwest onto a glacial moraine. Walk north to skirt private land and plunge west to Lightner Creek. Ford the creek and bushwhack northwest. Link with an abandoned mining road that ascends the east flank of the mountain. Leave the road at 9,640 feet and climb the east ridge of Baldy Peak. It is helpful to carry a GPS unit that delineates the public-private land boundaries. Thank you, John Bregar, for commandeering the public lands route for this hike.

From the trailhead, elevation 7,340 feet, walk directly west along a tributary of Dry Fork on a well-defined trail within Perins Peak SWA managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 

The path climbs softly through ponderosa and aspen while passing a prize-winning Gambel oak.

Hawthorn trees blossom in early summer. The track rises to a low pass directly under the north slopes of Barnroof Point at 1.0 mile, 7,780 feet. 

Pause and get your bearings. Deep Creek is the first depression. A moraine separates Deep Creek from Lightner Creek. Next is the southeast flank of Baldy. The summit is image-left. Silver Mountain rises stately on the skyline. The trail turns north onto a low ridge. Stay on the track for about ten paces and then branch left onto a descending path. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

The trail crosses a lush meadow. If it becomes obscure, hold a northwest trajectory into a draw. A gate at 1.5 miles marks the boundary between Perins Peak SWA and National Forest. Please close the gate.

The trail passes through a stand of old growth ponderosa, swings down into a large meadow at Deep Creek, and ends at 2.0 miles, 7,500 feet. This image was shot in November when the cottonwoods lining the stream were at rest.

Jump across the creek and bushwhack up the east-facing slope of the moraine. There are pretty good openings in the brush. Top out on the moraine at 2.4 miles, 7,940 feet, and walk north through glades, stands of Gamble oak, and ponderosa. There is some uncertainty about the composition of the ridge. It may be mostly Mancos Shale with remnants of previously more widespread glacial material. (THW, photo)

Persevere through a thicket of oak and snowberry until you reach elevation 8,040 feet, three miles in. You must attain this elevation on the moraine to avoid private land. The west side of the moraine is steep and cliffy in places. Plummet down at the limit of possibility to Lightner Creek at 3.3 miles, 7,660 feet.

The creek can be hazardous during spring runoff. In 2019, I did a knee-deep barefoot wade. In 2015, we got chased off the mountain by a severe thunder storm just shy of the summit. Lightner Creek was flashing when we recrossed.

Now you must climb 800 feet northwest off-trail. Pitch steeply through aspen and massive blocks that tumbled from Dakota Sandstone cliffs.

Look for a break in the cliff band. We located a short, manageable wall. (THW, photo)

Intersect an abandoned road that winds for miles up to the Texas Chief Mine. We reached it at 4.1 miles, 8,500 feet. This happens to be where the Big Stick Ditch crosses the road. Make sure you are on the road, not the ditch. The road does a major switchback. At Point 8,980' it makes a sharp turn to the left. From this vantage point you can see Silver and Lewis Mountains and look down onto the Entrada Sandstone slab that stands out from Barnroof Point.

There are occasional glimpses of Baldy Peak through resplendent aspen. Four card suits were carved into one trunk long ago. Recognize limber pines by their large cones. This is the land of big trees. It took three of us holding hands to get around an ancient ponderosa on the uphill side of the road.

The track passes an open fenceline at 6.1 miles, 9,500 feet, and disappears in a large, open meadow. Hold your bearing and the road will reappear on the other side.

At 6.7 miles, 9,640 feet, leave the road and branch left onto a trail and begin the east ridge ascent. Just shy of 10,000 feet, a mile off the top, the footpath veers left. Leave the trail, staying on the east ridge. Walk through a mixed forest with some deadfall. Five hundred feet from the summit, trees mysteriously disappear. Emerge onto a steep grassy slope enhanced with scattered spruce.

Looking back, Barnroof Point looks impossibly far away. The Perins Peak cuesta is to its left and Lake Nighthorse is on the right. This is Durango's backyard but it feels fabulously remote. (THW, photo)

The Needle Mountains and Mountain View Crest are an entire mountain range away but startle in their visual proximity. (THW, photo)

Top out on the summit sphere at 8.0 miles tucked under the purview of Deadwood and Silver Mountains. From the softly rounded and unobstructed expanse the view is wide open to the south end of the La Plata Mountains and west to Sleeping Ute and Shiprock. Yes, this is a long hike to a low peak but that is a good deal of its charm. Baldy Peak is quintessentially Western and very much kin with the town of Durango, visible in the southeast. Someday, we intend to climb Baldy from Deadwood Mountain and Paine Ridge but in early summer of 2019 it was impossible to cross the raging La Plata River. (THW, photo)

The peak register was placed in 2007. Elevation gain so far is 4,250 feet. Be psyched for the 400-foot climb out of Lightner Creek and the 250-foot gradual ascent on-trail from Deep Creek to the base of Barnroof Point, shown.
(THW, photo)

This is one of the best nature hikes in the La Plata Mountains. Ladybugs covered the summit in 2010. 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, pygmy bitterroot, sugarbowl, golden banner, bastard toadflax, evening primrose, strawberry, chokecherry, serviceberry, dogwood, clematis, blue-eyed Mary, townsendia, heartleaf arnica, pussytoes, wild iris, sweet cicely, wallflower, rockcress, flax, woods' rose, Indian paintbrush, lupine, larkspur, bluebell, cinquefoil, New Mexican senecio, Rocky Mountain and toadflax penstemon, bedstraw, golden smoke, mule's ear, daisy fleabane, buckwheat, purple and white violet, candytuft, white peavine, green gentian, scarlet beeblossom, and spotted coralroot, below. (THW, photo)

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

New Mexico Arches: Anasazi, Octopus, and Cedar Hills

Essence: Two separate hikes feature three of the several hundred natural arches located near Aztec, New Mexico. Anasazi Arch is a free-standing, thin ribbon of stone often likened to Utah's Delicate Arch. Octopus and Cedar Hills Arches are steps away from each other but are categorically different. All three are very near the Colorado-New Mexico border. You will see and hear oil and gas installations on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Hikes to the arches are short and can easily be done in a day; further exploration is suggested.
Travel to Anasazi Arch: From Durango, drive south on US 550 over Farmington Hill to the New Mexico stateline. Just south of mile marker 171 (170.9) turn west on San Juan County Road 2300. Start measuring from here. Bear right on CR 2310 in 1.2 miles. Stay on the main road at spurs. Just past a large oil and gas facility turn right at 3.8 miles. Take the left fork at 4.0 miles and park. Roads can be very slippery and even impassible when wet but 2WD suitable when dry.
Travel to Octopus Arch: The access road to Octopus is about two miles south of the turnoff for Anasazi. Right after US 550 crosses the Animas River take the first left on San Juan CR 2390. There is a sign for the Cedar Hill Cemetery. In 2.2 miles park in a two-car pullout on the left side of the road.
Distance and Elevation Gain, Anasazi Arch: 0.5 mile roundtrip with 160 feet of gain; out-and-back to the La Plata Mountains Lookout adds 1.5 miles and 400 feet of vertical.
Total Time for Anasazi Arch Hikes: 1:00 to 3:00
Distance and Elevation Gain, Octopus and Cedar Hills Arches: 1.5 miles with 400 feet of climbing.
Total Time for Octopus Arch Area: 1:00 to 2:00
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+ with mild exposure on the pitches near Anasazi; long pants recommended for those doing further exploring.
Arch Geology and Information: There were three sea-came-in and sea-went-out episodes in the eastern San Juan Basin of New Mexico during the Cretaceous period. The arches are located in the San Jose Formation of the Eocene age. The San Jose thickens to 2,300 feet toward the east-central part of the basin. Over 400 arches have been cataloged in Northern New Mexico by Larry Beck, president of the Natural Arch and Bridge Society. Arch statistics and coordinates sited below were found in a National Geographic publication featuring sandstone arches near Aztec, New Mexico.
Maps: Cedar Hill, New Mexico; Mount Nebo, New Mexico-Colorado 7.5' USGS Quads
Latest Date Hiked: June 11, 2019
Quote: All experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades forever and forever when I move. Alfred Lord Tennyson

Elegant and exquisite, isolated Anasazi Arch rises from its mother stone in a perfect catenary curve.
(Thomas Holt Ward, photo) 

Route to Anasazi Arch: From the parking area hike north to the arch. Three optional additions are offered: exploring the sandstone rim at arch level, a short loop to the Arch Overlook, and a longer hike to the La Plata Mountains Lookout, indicated below with a blue line. Note: this topographic map uses 20 foot intervals.

Anasazi Arch
On some maps Anasazi is named Cox Canyon Arch. Cox Canyon drains Black Canyon in La Plata County, Colorado, running south and parallel to the Animas River. The Cox Canyon tributary joins the Animas at Cedar Hill, a hamlet north of Aztec. The arch is located on one of the lower benches of a mesa that spans the two drainages.

From the trailhead, elevation 6,200 feet, Anasazi Arch is less than a quarter of a mile away but navigation is not obvious. Walk north aiming initially for the pouroff at the apex of a natural amphitheater. The south wall terminates at an 80-foot, straight-standing column, off-image on the right.

There is a pretty good social trail that penetrates the initial cliff band on the north side of the dry fall. This is the only user-friendly approach to the arch. (THW, photo)

While weaving through fallen boulders look up to see the approaching span. (THW, photo)

Shallow hand and toe holds are carved into the stone as you top out on the first terrace. The San Jose Formation is a highly textured, granular sandstone which makes for delightfully sticky climbing. However, the raspy rock will wear away at your fingerprints after a few hours of arch hunting. (THW, photo)

You need to hit this break in the cliffs both going and coming from the arch. Over the years cairns have been transient so make a note of your location. It is off-trail from here but the arch remains visible to the northeast residing on the next bench. (THW, photo)

Walking through Anasazi's ring of stone is both wondrous and startling. It is a perfect arc of sky upheld by a stream of rock that tenuously rests on a broad platform, beautiful in form, perfect in function. It is classified as "isolated," because it is not attached to any rock other than its base. Most likely eroded from a fin, its span is 42 feet and its height is 35 feet. Coordinates are: Latitude: 36° 59' 52.431" N, Longitude: 107° 54' 33.138" W. Living in companionship with the sky hole are old twisted junipers, yucca spears, aromatic sage, and stimulating ephedra. (THW, photo)

Please resist the strong temptation to climb the arch. It is dangerous for humans and potentially catastrophic for the vulnerable arch. What follows are suggestions for further exploration in the area. All three options can be completed in a couple of hours. (THW, photo)

Sandstone Rim at Arch Level
From the arch walk east dropping slightly onto a sandstone rim. Walk as far as you like and then double back to the arch.

Scramble to Arch Overview
North of the arch is another sandstone barrier. Getting up to the next level is great fun. This loop hike goes up through the Rabbit Hole and down the Dog Route. If you are with a dog, you will need to take the Dog Route up and back.

Rabbit Hole: From the east side of the arch head a short distance northeast until you spot a cave and skylight. It is a low Class 3 move to get into the squeeze. The passage through the hole elevates you onto a sandstone sheet with petrified globular billows.

You will naturally want to scamper all over up there. Walk west to the Arch Overview. (THW, photo)

Dog Route: To return to the arch walk northwest. You will encounter a shattered terrace floor--large, thick stone plates that you can leap around on.

Head over to the rim to locate the Dog Route. It is a stone funnel with carved hand and foot depressions. An ultra playful set of moves will get you back to arch level. For those going both directions on the Dog Route, from the arch follow along the base of the wall to the west. It is the first scaling opportunity. (THW, photo)

La Plata Mountains Lookout
If you'd like even more exploring, I recommend climbing 400 feet off-trail to the mesa top for a staggering view of the La Plata and San Juan Mountains.

The mesa is well armored with not a lot of breaks in the escarpment. Analyze your options before leaving the Arch Overview. It is hiker's choice but I find it helpful to hold a northeast bearing to the base of the wall, reaching it at the break shown right of image-center. You will be plowing through brush and a piñon-juniper forest so long pants are helpful.

Your route may be unremarkable or you might get lucky and encounter these boulders. (THW, photo)

Our penetration point is shown on the map above in a recess. There are other good places to scale further east. Ours was an enjoyable scramble. If you like your ascent route, make a mental note because it won't be obvious on the return.

Once above the wall climb another 80 feet while bearing east and then south. This will put you on a vast sandstone sheet. Roam around to get a good angle on the La Plata and San Juan Mountains, including Mountain View Crest. Concentrate until you are able to pick out the arch from the mesa top. Retrace your steps to the the trailhead.

Route to Octopus and Cedar Hills Arches: There are several approaches to these arches, all of them off-trail. Some routes are shorter but none as elegant. From the parking pullout, walk east and gain a bluff protruding from a small mesa. Ascend northeast into the San Jose Formation. Hike a short loop that serves both arches. Note: this topographic map uses 20 foot intervals.

The arches are located on the east side of Ditch Canyon which drains the Mesa Mountains and joins the Animas River at Cedar Hill. It is a good idea to drive 0.1 mile beyond the pullout and locate Cedar Hills Arch at skyline. I once referred to it as "Marker Arch" because it points to Octopus Arch which is nearby but out of sight on its left. (THW, photo)

From the parking pullout, elevation 5,950 feet, the arches are just over half a mile distant. Cross San Juan CR 2390 and walk northeast through a sage flat while aiming for the left-hand base of the bluff topped with big blocks. Cross a wide and dry sandy wash. Pick any place that looks appealing and climb the first pitch.

Head north on the terrace. It is narrow enough to feel like a ridge with oil and gas 4WD tracks below on both sides. The arches are located on the next level. Scale the soft, purple shale of the Nacimiento Formation which underlies the San Jose.

Continue traveling north to a large outcrop, shown. It signifies the beginning of the loop. For the most direct route to the arches turn left. I favor the counterclockwise loop starting to the right. Thread through large boulders and do a Class 2+ climb onto a sandstone expanse with small weathered domes and whorling petrified biscuits.

Walk west and then back south on top of the stone ridge following a trail of broken beer bottles to Octopus Arch. Its most distinguishing characteristic is the top of the span which looks very much like the head of an octopus. The span is 29 feet and the height is 12 feet. Coordinates are: Latitude: 36° 56' 13.694" N, Longitude: 107° 51' 37.373" W. Octopus was formed by a pothole near a cliff edge that grew deeper and deeper until it wore through the cliff wall. Please do not climb on this fragile arch.  

When I first visited in 2008, Octopus had a beautiful extended arm, now sadly truncated. (THW, photo)

Continue south on the upper level for 0.1 mile to Cedar Hills Arch. This is a cliff wall arch, or an alcove arch, whose roof was eroded away. This powerful and substantial aperture will ably support the weight of people who are not afraid of exposure. The span is 30 feet and the height is 20 feet. Coordinates are: Latitude: 36° 56' 12.649" N, Longitude: 107° 51' 38.539" W. (THW, photo)

To reach the base of the arches walk back north. If you have the time, you can wander a fair distance on softly rippling sandstone.

Drop west and then walk south to the underside of Octopus. This ancient arch is growing ever more delicate. Hikers naturally pause to take in the essence of a structure that is defined more by emptiness than by stone. (THW, photo)

Anasazi and Octopus are well known and loved while Cedar Hills is considered a bonus arch. But it is my favorite because it answers the inexplicable need some of us possess to both stand on, and stand below, an arc of stone. The rock highlights the sky so blue, our faraway sun casts animated shadows, and each grain of sandstone is in a state of unique perfection. (THW, photo)

Man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun. Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Prior to this hike I've always been arch hunting in New Mexico during winter months when elk and cougars roam the domain and golden eagles glide overhead. In June, claret-cup cactus were blooming scarlet and prickly pear were peach, apricot, and yellow. (THW, photo)

Double bladderpod had already gone to seed. (THW, photo)

Some patches of cushion buckwheat were red, others cream. (THW, photo)

Also blooming were Utah serviceberry, townsendia, scarlet gilia, white mariposa lily, Eaton's penstemon, desert four o'clock, desert prince's plume, yucca, and lupine.