Thursday, July 21, 2022

Cuba Benchmark, 13,019', and Point 13,100' From Minnie Gulch

Essence: Minnie Gulch is a sanctuary of silence, solitude, and contemplation. It is one of the very few high alpine valleys in the Silverton region without motorized use. In this wildlife haven, elk bugle, bighorn sheep browse, and mountain lions imprint the trail. Mid-summer, wildflowers are diverse and spectacular. Revel in tundra euphoria from your first step while ascending to two unranked prominences with broad picnic tops and big cliffs off to one side. Summit views rival those found on much more challenging mountains. The beauty and ease of this hike make it one of the most sublime offerings on Earthline. Cuba Benchmark is on the boundary between the San Juan National Forest and Gunnison National Forest. The land to the west, including Minnie Gulch, is administered by the BLM. The southern portion of the hike is along the Continental Divide. The lands east of the divide are in the Rio Grande National Forest.
Travel: A 4WD (low helpful) vehicle with moderate clearance and sturdy tires are necessary to reach the trailhead. In Silverton, drive up Greene Street and zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto San Juan County Road 2. The pavement ends at 2.0 miles. On a good dirt road pass the turnoff to Cunningham Gulch in Howardsville at 4.1 miles. Pass the road into Maggie Gulch at 5.9 miles. Reach Minnie Gulch at 6.5 miles and turn right onto San Juan CR 24. The steep, rocky, and very narrow road climbs switchbacks before suspending itself on a shelf high above the gorge. In 7.8 miles, pass the first of many mine ruins and wreckage, some classically picturesque. Bear right at the fork at 8.1 miles. Park at 9.5 miles. The road hooks left and ends in a tenth of a mile at a turnaround. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: Cuba Benchmark: 6.9 miles, 1,650 feet. Point 13,100': add 1.3 miles, 250 feet.
Total Time: 3:00 to 4:00 for Cuba Benchmark. Add about an hour for Point 13,100'.
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2; no exposure
Map: Howardsville, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: July 21, 2022
Minnie Gulch Under Threat: In September, 2020, the Gunnison BLM Field Office approved the Silverton Travel Management Plan. The most contentious part of the plan changes the designation of the Minnie Gulch Trail from non-motorized to single-track motorized. The 1.6-mile dirt bike route would connect San Juan County Road 24 with a complex of Forest Service Roads on the east side of the Continental Divide. In December, 2020, San Juan Citizens Alliance and the Board of County Commissioners of San Juan County filed an appeal arguing for long-term protections of the scenic beauty, wildlife habitat, and cultural heritage in Minnie Gulch. There is significant and sufficient motorized use elsewhere across San Juan County. Establishing a motorized trail in Minnie Gulch would be incompatible with the nature and purposes of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Further, the “Minnie Gulch Ute Trail” through the corridor is an important remnant of indigenous Ute travel routes at high altitude in the San Juan Mountains. As your tithe for wilderness, please consider making a donation to San Juan Citizens Alliance as they work to protect Minnie Gulch and other priority alpine habitats in the San Juan Basin.
Quote: The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers. Matsuo Bashō
Cuba Benchmark is a distinctive landmark on the east rim of Minnie Gulch. 
Route: Walk southeast on-trail to the Continental Divide at the head of Minnie Gulch. Turn north on the shared Continental Divide and Colorado trails. Upon reaching the divide between Minnie and Cuba gulches, turn north and climb Cuba Benchmark. Walk south along the Continental Divide to Point 13,100'. Retrace steps to about 12,960 feet and cut west to link back up with the trail.

Cuba Benchmark
A sign indicates the Minnie Gulch Trail is closed to all motorized vehicles. From the trailhead, elevation 11,560 feet, step across a stream and head up the footpath. Right from the start Point 13,100' is visible to the left of the pass, shown. In 2022, after weeks of daily monsoonal rain, the landscape was sopping wet. The main watercourse was ripping and riffing tunes that made our hearts sing.

This image looks back on the trailhead and parking. Most of the visible relics from the Esmeralda Mine (gold and silver) are near the incoming road and scattered on the hillsides.

Minnie Gulch has an abundance of wildlife. Songbirds sing, picas chirp, and yellow-bellied marmots whistle from all corners of the terrain. At ground level, burrow castings run through the soil. "Eskers" are made by pocket gophers under deep snow. Shown below is a mountain lion print near the beginning of the trail. 
Wildflowers in Minnie Gulch typically peak in mid-July. Flora in the lower reaches of the valley include black tipped senecio and golden groundsel, Coulter's erigeron, Grey's angelica, geranium, potentilla, yarrow, pussy toes, western and edible valerian, sorrel, fairy candelabra, and psychedelic purple fringe. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Half a mile up the trail the path wends through large boulders that have tumbled down the west slope of Cuba Benchmark. Living among the rocks are unusually pale columbine, veronica, alpine thistle, and purple Silverton wallflower. 

Rivulets support their own water-loving floral communities. This stream favors brilliant Parry's primrose, dainty brook saxifrage, cheerful marsh marigold, snow-white brookcress, spiked elephant head, and cowbane (toxic to cattle). Paintbrush brightens the slightly dryer outskirts.

In one mile, bluebells and delphinium spill down the hill along with rocks from an outcrop. This begins one of the consistently best floral displays in Colorado. The steep hillside between the trail and the stream is solid flowers. 
Color swaths vary with a slight turn of the head. (THW, photo)
Deep maroon flower heads sparkle atop king's crown. Rose-colored queen's crown lives nearby in moist soil.
(THW, photo)
Cuba Benchmark is visible from different angles throughout this hike. Below, the flowing skirts of the prominence sport an astounding tapestry of Whipple's penstemon, also called dusky beardstongue. 

The ascent up the draw is consistently pleasant and gradual. Below, a hiker ambles through a dense field of daffodil senecio. (THW, photo)

The trail disperses in the tundra at about 12,500 feet. A few cairns mark the route but the way is obvious to the pass. 

Stay on the east side of the waterway. Minnie Gulch is constrained on the west by Middle Mountain. 

 Sulfur paintbrush and American bistort are common plants in the alpine. (THW, photo)
Reach a major trail junction and the Continental Divide at the top of Minnie Gulch at 2.0 miles, 12,740 feet. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) shares the treadway in this region with the Colorado Trail (CT). There's a good chance you'll see backpackers and possibly bike-packers on these trails. The Middle Fork of Pole Creek Trail heads south. While it is open to motorized use, in over two decades I have never seen or even heard a "moto" on this trail. 

As you head the gulch you will see a line of very tall cairns going in both directions marking Colorado's signature trail. From a distance it is hard to distinguish between a cairn and a human, perhaps giving rise to the name "stone boy." Our route goes northeast on the cross-state trail. Watch for a cairn on the right housing a marmot castle. Rock for the cairn pictured below was gathered conveniently from the island of stone upon which it was built.

Stand on the Cuba and Maggie Gulch divide at 2.8 miles, 12,900 feet. This will be a familiar location for those who have climbed Half Peak from the west. Shift onto a strong unmaintained trail that departs from the CDT/CT bearing north. The short run out to Cuba Benchmark is 1.3 miles roundtrip. Below, the benchmark is the first rounded knoll. (THW, photo)

It is rare to see people off the CDT/CT but common to see signs of wildlife. We heard trumpeting elk and saw cougar and coyote prints on the ridgeline. We were fortunate to find white fans rising from the soil--snowlover. On her website, Wildflowers of the Southern Rocky Mountains, Marilyn Phillips writes, “Even a walking pace is just too fast if we really want to see the world. Snowlover is one of those tiny alpine plants that evades you unless you search at the slowest pace. And then, as happened to us, you may find many snowlover plants, for the plants grow near each other by the dozen or more." (THW, photo)

To reach the benchmark, we stepped off the trail and walked up small runs of chipped talus to the saddle between the prominences, elevation 12,940 feet.

Since it was hard to determine which knoll was higher, we checked out the northern one first. It was an easy, short ascent through andesite, a fine-grained, extrusive igneous volcanic rock.

Looking north, we could see our past route to Crown Mountain, North Crown, and Niagara Peak. To the east of Niagara is Jones Mountain and American Peak. And finally, the highest of them all, Handies Peak.

Looking south, Cuba Benchmark is indeed the higher of the two companion knolls.

The USGS disk on the benchmark is unusual. "CUBA" was imprinted twice to get it right. There is no year noted, but there is an elevation, "13019."

The benchmark drops radically 1,500 feet into glacially carved Minnie Gulch where the trail is visible. The land punches back up to the Minnie and Maggie divide on Middle Mountain. Pyramidal Mount Sneffels is on the distant horizon, image-center. (THW, photo)
Alpine flowers are strewn about on the big broad crest. We found old man of the mountain, alpine avens, snowball saxifrage, candy tuft and smelowskia, sibbaldia, moss campion, and deep rooted spring beauty. Below, I'm looking toward singular Half Peak, 13,841', a 15.5 mile hike with 4,200 feet of elevation gain from the Minnie Gulch Trailhead. The hike requires a full day of untroubled weather. Cuba Benchmark is at the head of Cuba Gulch, an access route to Half Peak from Lake City. (THW, photo)

From the little crest, Point 13,100' is a carefree, contemplative walk across folds of green velvet. (THW, photo)

Point 13,100'
Return to the CDT/CT trail at 4.1 miles. Stroll south to Point 13,041', where you will once again be standing on the Continental Divide. Waters east of the ridge flow into Pole Creek. The all-important confluence with the Rio Grande River is but a few miles south.

This is a stretch of breath-taking immensity, quintessential Colorado tundra territory. We tagged all the rollers, searched for animal prints on the edges of ponds, and admired turquoise-colored veins in chunks of quartz.
We found a few Colorado ragwort and one uncommon Colorado tansy aster. The blossoms of alpine sandwort (formally minuartia) are even tinier than they appear in this image. (THW, photo)

Point 13,100' is a neglected, unranked prominence passed up by hikers walking east-west across the state, or north-south across the country. In its favor, the little bluff looks out over the greatest division of waters in America. Below, the CDT/CT zigzags up the slope toward Stony Pass. Canby Mountain to the southwest is right on the Continental Divide. Sheep Mountain with the linear summit ridge sheds into the headwaters of the Rio Grande.
Below, two friends look further afield and deeper in time to the 1.5 billion-year-old, mind-bending Precambrian basement rock in the quartzite Grenadier Range. When you must break away, retrace your steps until you are past the westward scree runners and simply cut down to the CDT/CT. (THW, photo)

Friday, July 8, 2022

Bonita Peak, 13,286', and Emery Peak, 13,310', From Eureka Gulch

Essence: There are several approaches to Bonita Peak and unranked Emery Peak from both Minnehaha Basin on the west and Eureka Gulch on the east. This route begins with a traverse over Bonita's north and south ridges followed by an out-and-back to Emery. The mountains are often climbed as a triplet with Proposal Peak; that option is referenced. Capable and brave climbers have strung the three together on the Class 5 ridgeline compromised by friable rock, not recommended by this blog. The route described here is decidedly easier but it's not a gimme. Slopes are steep; ridges are thin; rock is unstable; and exposure is significant. In mid-summer, brilliant green basins with arrays of linked reflection ponds have an abundance of wildflowers. This hike is pure Colorado. It is within the San Juan National Forest.
Travel: In a 4WD (low helpful) vehicle with high clearance, in Silverton drive up Greene Street to the north end of town. Make a soft right onto San Juan County Road 2 and measure distance from there. On a good dirt road drive to the mining ghost town of Eureka where the road crosses the Animas River at 7.8 miles. Look for a sharp left at 8.2 miles rising above the old Eureka Mill foundations. This is Eureka Gulch 4WD Road, the first left after the bridge. The narrow but fairly smooth shelf road clings to the south skirts of Eureka Mountain. The track curves around and follows above the South Fork of the Animas River. Conifers and then aspen give the shelf some sense of protection. On the left a cascade plummets from McCarty Basin into Eureka Gulch. The road becomes rocky, narrow, and steep in the krummholz and columbine zone. At 10.7 miles ignore the fork that descends to the left. Many mining structures and relics remain in the high basin. At 11.3 miles the road splits. Straight ahead is a rough stretch with bedrock boulders. The left option is a bypass. We went left and parked at first opportunity--the further on you drive, the more you will climb at the end of the hike.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 5 miles; 2,300 feet of climbing
Total Time: 4:00 to 5:30
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+ with moderate exposure; steep slopes
Map: Handies Peak, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad
Latest Date Hiked: July 8, 2022
Quote: These mountain flowers look inexpressibly delicate; their stems are slender, their blossoms fragile; but burrow a little in the soil, and roots of a timeless endurance are found. Nowhere more than here is life proved invincible. Everything is against it, but it pays no heed. Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
Bonita Peak, the name that says it all. Located within the San Juan Volcanic Field, near-black cliffs are interspersed with cascades tumbling down verdant alpine slopes and stilling on a marshy tableland.

Route: A week prior to this hike we climbed Proposal Peak from Minnehaha with the intention of tagging Emery and Bonita peaks on our way around the circuit. We were weathered out which turned into a good thing because it gave us reason to try again from Eureka Basin. We were gifted with a sunny day and so we determined our route casually on the fly. We ascended northwest from parking to Bonita's north ridge. From the summit we descended south to the saddle and then skirted around the east ridge of Emery into McCarty Basin. Both Proposal (blue-line route) and Emery peaks are climbed from this basin. Retrace steps to Emery's east ridge and descend northwest to parking.

Bonita Peak
The stitched image below is an excellent overview of the first portion of the hike. From parking near the west fork of Eureka Gulch, elevation 12,020 feet, we ascended to the saddle north of Bonita Peak, image-right. From the summit we descended to the south saddle at image-center. We resisted the tempting (but harrowing) north ridge of Emery. Instead, we walked across the extensive talus bench below the north face of Emery's east ridge, image-left. We went over the ridge on a social trail at 12,400 feet.
From parking, head northwest, immediately crossing a stream. Walk on a thick mat of lush grass and wildflowers. As always, we tiptoed around the flowers as best we could. Looking east to the west slopes of Hanson Peak, it's clear the high basin was ravaged by mining. Roads and structures associated with the Sunnyside Mine, including a cement castle, are strung out and strewn about. Even glacially carved Lake Emma has disappeared, having drained catastrophically into a mining tunnel in 1978. Thankfully, this occurred on a Sunday, sparing all 125 workers. Despite all the interference, the headwater basin of Eureka Gulch is gorgeous today. (THW, photo)

At 12,280 feet we walked past a grated steel door barring entrance into a mining tunnel.

We heard hoofs on rock on several occasions in different basins. We could smell elk and saw scat and fresh prints in rain-softened dirt. But we never saw the wily animals. The headwall inevitably steepens toward the ridge but the route proved excellent.
We gained the north ridge of Bonita at 12,920 feet, 0.8 mile. Of note: My partner once traversed the ridge starting at Sunnyside Saddle. Heading south we found a hint of a game or social trail just east of the ridgeline making for relatively easy passage.
The ridge is friendly in places but razor sharp for short stretches. There's very little solid rock where you want it the most. Test all holds carefully. Brace, don't pull. 

Pass over the top of Point 13,228'. In 2011, I climbed Bonita with friends from the Lead Carbonate Mill in Minnehaha Basin. We clawed up the west slope, went up the south ridge to the peak, descended to Point 13,228', and then dropped on its west ridge, shown. 
Climb over the tailings pile and scale the tan slide.

The face of the summit ridge on the north is radically different than the south. The summit cone is easy to mount with a thread of trail assisting. As always, the smallest trace of a trail is better than none at all. 

The summit ridge is somewhat lengthy, rather crunchy, and decidedly narrow. The views are so enthralling you'll want to pause to take it all in. Behind me, Brown Mountain flows north to Abrams Mountain poised over Ouray. Hurricane Peak is a bit north and west of Sunnyside Saddle. (THW, photo)

Surmount Bonita's tiny crest, the tipping point of her linear summit ridge, just 1.15 miles into the hike after 1,250 feet of gain. The initial segment will take most hikers an hour to an hour and a half. The summit register had few signatures. We saw absolutely no one on this hike (or on our previous Proposal Peak climb).

The circular vista of the southern San Juan Mountains from Bonita is stunning. Eastward, look down on Eureka Gulch and up to Handies Peak, American Basin, American Peak, Jones Mountain, Niagara Peak, and Crown Mountain. The Rio Grand Pyramid and Window were visible off-image.
The west slopes plummet to Cement Creek. The Silverton Mountain ski lift is visible on the north ridge of Storm Peak. Image center is unmistakable Golden Horn and other 13ers in the vicinity of Ice and Columbine lakes.
In the northwest, distinguished by its pyramidal form, Mount Sneffles, 14,155' (with 3,030 feet of prominence), was named after the Icelandic stratovolcano Snaefelljöskull, "snow fell glacier." (THW, photo)

The peak in its tiny glory sits at the north end of the triplet of mountains on this block. Look south to Emery and then southwest to Proposal, with the summit spire. Wild and imposing companions include Dome Mountain left of Emery (climbed from Eureka Gulch) and perilous Storm Peak (accessed from Cement Creek). (THW, photo)
Bonita has 506 feet of prominence calculated from the 12,780-foot saddle at the base of the south ridge. I'm not sure the first 100 yards qualify as a knife edge but I did experience that catwalk sensation where peripheral vision picks up huge drops on both sides. It can mess with your balance. This is a no-fall zone.

The summit ridge cliffs out in an overhung stone ball. We cautiously worked down to the west about 20 feet on broken rock and intersected a social trail. If you are climbing up the south ridge, my field notes from 2011 indicate this rather sketchy trail existed then and intersected the ridge beyond the obstacle. (THW, photo)

This shot of the near-vertical southeast face of Bonita Peak was taken from the little roller above the saddle. If you are not going to Emery, at about 13,000 feet start watching for a ramp dropping east into the basin.
Emery Peak 
Descend the roller on a grassy slope and alight on Saddle 12,780' at 1.6 miles. Clearly, the shortest route to Emery is straight up its north ridge, shown. However, there is a vertical, chossy, Class 4+ notch composed of rotten rock beyond the false summit. Trip reports and tales from friends indicate they all wished they'd taken the long way around.
This alternative route goes around Emery's east ridge into McCarty Basin and climbs the peak from the southeast. There's a remnant of an old pack trail in the saddle. It quickly fades away on either side of the pass. Cross the trail and then turn east, roaming freely in this stunning basin.

You will inevitably lose elevation as you step down onto a couple of broad benches. You might get lucky and happen upon a one-boot-wide path that disperses in a talus yard. The approximately 0.3 mile stretch across rock exfoliated from Emery's north face is unavoidable. Do not drop any lower than 12,400 feet. Having been there the week prior going in the opposite direction, we knew there was a thin game or possibly social trail at the far end of the scree. We found it as we were about to round the east ridge at 2.4 mile, 12,440 feet. 

The path bears southwest into flowerful McCarty Basin. For those climbing Proposal Peak the best way into Slagle Basin is to cross the 12,820-foot saddle east of the gendarme on Proposal's east ridge, image-center.
Heading southwest, walk pass a reflection pool, one of many tarns on benches stepping down into Eureka Gulch. (THW, photo)
There are options for climbing Emery. We followed the little trail as it climbed 200 feet to the next bench. This is where the Emery-Proposal routes diverge. For Emery, we skirted the scree field, shown, and then curved north toward the peak staying on the tundra. The slope steepens at 13,000 feet. The simplest route to the summit is to stay on the green going directly north. We were curious about the south ridge. Getting onto the ridge was a little spooky. It required powerful, exposed hefts on crumbling rock.
We engaged the ridge at 13,180 feet (the low point between the peaks) only to see a considerable challenge between us and the summit. (This image offers a good angle on the ultra steep tundra pitch.) (THW, photo)
It was tricky and exposed on pretty bad rock. It gave us a beginner's taste for the ridge traverse between Emery and Proposal which is troubled with Class 5 towers.
We topped out on Emery Peak at 3.5 miles. With only 130 feet of prominence, Emery is an unranked summit but a worthy goal. Proposal Peak, just half a mile south, looks like an anvil from this perspective but standing on top it feels like the tip of a spear.
Return to Parking
We debated descending the east ridge but couldn't get a good look at it. So we dropped a few feet back down the south ridge and then skidded down the slope to meet our upcoming route. It was a mix of resistant soil, flower tussocks, and chipped rock.
After crossing Emery's east ridge we made an effortless northwest descent to the bottom of the basin. We were able to cross the west fork of Eureka Gulch on dry ground, just feet from our vehicle.
For the few hours we were on this hike, it felt like Earth was Heaven, like we were still on the redeemable side of climate catastrophe. The monsoons had been going off almost daily for over a month and water was flowing in rivulets, saturating the soil, and giving life to flora and fauna. I made a list of blooming alpine flowers as I walked along.

Veronica, American bistort, sibbaldia, pygmy bitterroot, alpine avens, snow buttercup and "ten petal" buttercup, fairy candelabra, clover, purple fringe, Silverton wallflower, king's crown, sky pilot, deep rooted spring beauty, old man of the mountain, smelowskia, dotted saxifrage, aspen daisy, moss campion, minuartia, alpine sorrel, bluebell, mouse ear chickweed, orange sneezeweed, marsh marigold, globe flower, purple violet, columbine, pussy toes, Parry's primrose, snowball saxifrage, brookcress, elephant head, Drummond's rockcress, queen's crown, and alpine sage. As we drove down through Eureka Gulch growing beside the road were osha, black tipped senecio, delphinium, death camas, and geranium. The rosy paintbrush in McCarty Basin made the biggest statement of the day. (THW, photo)