Climbing out of my tent in the morning I wasn’t settled on that day’s ride. Clean-up and breakfast were their usual events, but I decided a second cup of coffee would help me focus my route. Into town I headed and found Mountain Oven to be exactly what I needed. Sitting in the warming sun I wanted to see Lake City, but I didn’t know how. Did I want to camp there? Would I just pass through? Should I plan to stop for lunch? I really had no idea at all. I took my time with my coffee, caught up with my brother on the phone, topped off the fuel tank, and the headed south towards Gunnison, and Highway 50, which would traces the shoreline of Blue Mesa Reservoir and connects to Highway 149, the route which would lead me to Lake City and Creede, over Slumgullion Pass and into the headwaters of the Rio Grande River. This was to be epic day!
The route along 149 south climbs away from Blue Mesa Reservoir in the subtle way that most so many Colorado roads climb. You think you can predict how the scenery is going to unfold, you’ve been on so many roads “that are just like this?!,” that you are so happily surprised to be wrong! Yes, the road does climb through dry sage and low scrub. Yes, the hill tops are round and no real obstacles come into view. But, you focused on the destination, not the actual route! You found Lake City on the map, but forgot to study how you ACTUALLY get there!? This slow rise to the south eventually turns west where it descends and then dumps you abruptly along south fork of the Gunnison River! Maybe THAT is the true delight of all of this, the perpetual surprise? Chasing the Gunnison to it’s source, one would eventually climb high into the San Juan Mountains, in the shadows of Sunshine, Redcloud and Handies Peaks. I wouldn’t get to look at these sights today, I would be saving those for another trip. Lake City is a tiny burb, where Henson Creek joins this branch of the Gunnison, and I promise myself that I will take more time to explore here next summer. This ride is in part reconnaissance, but largely just getting away. So, I only slow as I pass through town, and gladly accelerate up and away from the valley floor because it’s these views, the tops of the mountains, that I want to embrace today! From the top of the Slumgullion Earth Flow site Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn stand as sentinels to the northwest, the Redcloud group to the southwest. I’d like to be there, but the route and bike I’ve chosen are here. Engineer and Cinnamon Pass will get done at some point, this I know. Those routes are challenging, but after what I would encounter on this trip, I really should have thought out my plan more.
Lake City and Creede were two places in Colorado I’d never seen, and I’d just learned about another road, Highway 141 through the Dolores Canyon, so I had part of my goal accomplished, and more to look forward to. Today offered open valleys, and tight canyons. High 149 drops only slightly off of Slumgullion Pass before climbing again to Spring Creek Pass. As it drops again the tributaries of the Rio Grande become your guides and companions, and one of Colorado’s most impressive waterfalls can be easily ignored because the highway just begs you to keep riding! But don’t listen! “Stop and explore!” That’s what I kept telling myself. And, as always, the side trip was worth it. North Creek Falls may not contain the majesty of Colorado’s tallest falls, but at 100 feet in height, it is a worthy of the short hike, and it allows a chance to follow a short, scenic parallel, route of 149. Returning to the highway I was beginning to think of food and without really gauging the time to Creede, a little roadside restaurant in Antelope Park. Freeman’s is connected to a larger guest ranch, and even though it was busy with a late lunch crowd, I got my burger and fries without a hassle. The Rio Grande becomes comes into it’s own here in Antelope Park, and it’s course rambles north towards the town of Creede, in one of the most remote portions of Colorado. The sky becomes “big” in this part of the state. It doesn’t receive the pressure from the Front Range and out-of-state license plates seem equal to instate ones. It definitely feels different, especially given it’s strange dissection by Williams Creek. Many historic structures exist, and a “this is REALLY the West” sense rolls about its streets. I have one more pass to climb today, and I’m even less sure of where I’ll be sleeping, so I reclaim my place on the highway and head south again, happily following the Rio Grande to South Fork.
Wolf Creek Pass has always held a mystical appeal. It is in that “remotest of remote” parts of Colorado. A place where you can be truly cut-off if the conditions are just right. It is the safest and fastest route to Durango, the far southwest of the state. But heavy snows are consistent and until very recently, it was common for Wolf Creek to be closed multiple times a week, if not because of actual avalanche or rock slide, but simply the threat of one of the two! I haven’t traveled here for a couple of years, but never miss a chance to. I hadn’t specifically said “Durango” when I was planning this route, but it just seemed that it would naturally come about if I rode far enough. And, it looked like I had.
Major work has been completed on this section of the road in the last ten years, while rough patches exist, it is easy to lose yourself in the scenery and the rush. Stopping for water at the bottom of the climb, I thought about the near hot springs that is only an hours hike up the hill, “Dammit! I need to plan this things better?!” Funny though, when I return home and start to actually LOOK for this site, I’m WAY off?! Riding up the pass is another blissful dance on two wheels. It is Tuesday afternoon, and the road is vacant. This isn’t a reckless moment, but rather an uninhibited one. I’m laughing in my helmet. I’ve shut the music off, the hum of the tires and the burble of the exhaust are my companions. And yes, I’m laughing in my helmet. I’m laughing to myself, I’m laughing at the moment. Spontaneous moments of inescapable joy? Maybe we just don’t have enough of them, and that’s the REAL problem. It isn’t the motorcycle, the gear, or even the setting, it’s that we forget that the joy IS already there, we make up thousands of excuses a second to block it out.
Topping Wolf Creek and pointing downhill again, one of the more jarring overlooks in Colorado can be found. At the arc of the first switch back there is a small side out that has to be viewed. This switchback is so obvious and pronounced, this sweep of the roadway is clearly outlined on even the small-scale highway maps that blot out all but the largest of Colorado’s towns! The valley floor is a many feet below, as if standing on top of that very tall building, just a little too afraid to walk completely to its edge. But there it is, the upper reaches of the West Fork of the San Juan river. Colorado is the rain bucket of West. Snow gathers here from September through May, and then in seeps and great torrents washes off the mountains, eventually draining its contents into both the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. This is process goes on without notice to millions of us, yet stopping, and staring at it in its infancy, it is easy to see the cycle in motion, and to understand the concerns of scientists and stakeholders. But now, I just see the vista, the valley below, the small squiggle of a line that is the San Juan, and I know I need to find some flat ground, a place that is quiet, and maybe nestled along that tributary that eventually joins the Grand, to drain into the Gulf of California.
Excited by little traffic, I launch a little harder than I should, smirking at the v-twins up-shift cackle, knowing a ticket would definitely be issued for these antics. Settling my speed down as I descend I scan to my right as the highway flattens to match the valley floor. I’m hoping to find the road that cuts across the valley at the base of the rock that is now towering behind me, looking every bit the stand-in for Half Dome that it could be. Downshifting I spy the turn-off and think about the peaceful night’s sleep ahead of me. The dirt track turning to the north and west passes through a small campground filled with campers and trailers and families. I’ve only been out for one night, so I’m not REALLY in need of hot water and conversation, so I pass this up believing that serenity will be within my reach soon. But, instead I find that areas that look to be perfect for camping are on ranch land, and the unnerving number of ARVs and quads are belying the perfection of this place. It’s hot. It’s hot and there are flies. The flies are swarming me AND my gear, and I’m not so happy any more. The track eventually leads to the river, and at the edge are a couple of sites, the better ones already snagged for the night, so I push on a little more. The road rises and the temperature cools and I think I may find some relief. But again, the land the road travels through is private, and only at the turn-around, which is a trailhead, is there enough room to park off the road. I attempt to dig a map from my tankbag, hoping to get a better sense of just what is in front, and or, around me. It looks like my immediate options are few and that this particular road is not going to hold what I was looking for. And, I won’t blame the road, only my lack of preparedness.
There is a Forest Road, just to the south of here, and it follows the course of Silver Creek. It has a National Forest campground, though I’m still aiming for some privacy, but I’ll scout it out just to see. A quick blast south has me turning east up the steep start of the road. The cattle guard gives way to range land and the top of the hill contains a large stand of Aspens. The campground is perfect! It has two concentric circular drives, plenty of space between each site, the Aspen trees are tall and will protect from any rain that falls, and the best part is that it is mostly empty! But, it isn’t near the stream? It sits high on the bank, with the stream 50 feet below. As I sit in a vacant spot, with my helmet off and the motorcycle silenced, I can hear more noise from the highway then I can the stream. I wanted to get “away” on this ride, this is not “away.” I pull my helmet back on, press the starter button and resume the journey up-stream. The road soon flattens out allowing the stream to rise to it, and I’m now looking “at” the stream and eyeing flat places. Lots of undeveloped sites reveal themselves, and finally spy the EXACT spot I’d been fantasizing about! Flat, soft ground, raised about five feet above the river. The river is flat and gentle with a rocky bottom. Aspens and fir trees separated my spot from the road, which is now thirty feet away. JetBoil lit, ground cloth down, tent standing and I’m munching on a dinner with the babble of the stream as the evening sky begins to darken. THIS is what I had been imagining when I first put this plan in motion. I have great memories of campsites along streams with Andrew and Tanner, and I wanted find a few more for future reference. The walls of the canyon were high at this particular point, and the loose clouds drifting in and out meant I might not see the same brilliant star show I’d seen the night before.