Aug 13, 2012 at 7:49 am #1292927
This was supposed to be a "South Fork Conejos/Roaring Gulch Loop" but I couldn't find the Roaring Gulch Trail. More on that later…
In many ways the South San Juan Wilderness, between Alamosa and Pagosa Springs in southern Colorado, reminds one of the nicer parts of northern New Mexico rather than Colorado. I suppose this isn't surprising, since it almost is in New Mexico. Any time my wife takes my daughter out of town without me I generally try to sneak a hike in, and I had long wanted to hit this area. I helped my wife pack for her trip the morning of August 10th and saw her off- I was on the road a bit after 09:00. I had made most of this trip many times before, into the San Luis valley. This is also the home of the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. The geology of the San Luis Valley is quite interesting- it is dotted by artesian wells, some of them geothermally heated- but I won't digress. I stopped in the excellent family-run Mexican buffet on the corner just over the bridge over the Rio Grande (yes, THAT Rio Grande) for some pre-hike fueling. If you're in the area and you're interested, it's the dark building at the traffic light, across from the Conoco station, just where US 160 West turns into Main-Street and becomes one-way. Then the route was US 285/Colorado 17 South to Antonito before continuing West on Colorado 17. Forest Service Road #250 heads north-ish off 17 at a little RV "resort." The South Fork Conejos is several miles up FS 250. After packing my car registration and insurance documents (there are criminals who will takes these from your vehicle so that they get your address and burgle your house while you are out hiking) I hit the trail around 13:30.
To orient you, the marker to the east is the trailhead, the one to the southwest is my first night's camp, and the one more north is my second night's camp:
Here's a link to GoogleMaps for a closer look:
The South Fork Conejos Trail (FS trail #724) starts very mildly. From the trailhead you descend to the Conejos river and cross it on a footbridge. Heading down to the bridge there is a small cabin:
Over the bridge you cross into a small forested area before breaking back out into meadow.
I have to admit a certain love of aspens. They seem almost Japanese in their aesthetic- black scars on white trunks, with leaves that flash in a hundred shades of green and the wind rustles them.
In the photo above you can see two canyon mouths; the left (southern) one is the South Fork of the Conejos, and the right (northern) one is Hansen Creek. The middle area of this meadow is very marshy. The water in the cowprints has an oily sheen, and the ground sinks down and makes waves as you walk on it, kind of like walking on a pool cover. The marshy ground can be bypassed uphill in the aspens- the trail is easy to find on the other side. There is pretty significant stock usage of the area. Most of the meadows early on the hike are covered in cow pattys. About halfway up the South Fork valley is a fence and gate to keep the cattle in the lower reaches.
I encountered these ninja cows near the gate. I call them ninja cows because a few minutes after I passed them I heard a noise behind and spun around to see half a dozen black cows staring at me from 20 yards away. All six froze and stared at me until I started walking again. Imagine the clop-clop of 24 hooves. Every time I turned around there they were, despite my admonitions that I had no treats for them and that they should go about their business, frozen and staring at me from 20 yards. It was spooky. Eventually I realized that they were just on their way to the creek to drink and I just happened to be moving in the same direction.
Up the canyon the trail enters more forested terrain.
The trail then climbs a bit up the canyon wall but makes several dips up and down. I passed a family of six who were looking for a Platypus bite-valve that their daughter had lost. I then crossed another small meadow with very large established campsites, one of them with horse hitches nailed to a few trees, large fire rings, etc.
(This photo was actually taken on my way back DOWN the canyon. The established horse camp is on the tree-covered knoll.)
The trail crossed the South Fork of the Conejos and started uphill- I quickly realized that it was not the correct trail, and a quick check of the map verified that the trail I wanted does not cross the river. I backtracked into the meadow and sure enough there was a much more faint trail continuing up the canyon. There was even a post with the trail number on it that I had missed. The trail I had followed was evidently much more popular with horsemen, and thus was much more obvious- this would be a running theme on this hike. It was Canyon Verde Trail (FS trail #726), and you can make out the short wrong-turn on my map, above. I briefly considered taking it, since it would lengthen my hike a bit and allow more time on the Continental Divide, but ultimately I decided to stick to FS trail #724. In retrospect I really should have lengthened the hike.
Eventually, the famous Rocky Mountain afternoon showers hit. Initially these were very light, and in characteristic fashion I thought to myself "This is actually kind of nice- it cools me off." The showers were very light for half an hour or so and then… the heavens opened without warning. The skies were overcast but not extreme in appearance. Nonetheless I was soaked to my core before I could pull my rain gear on. This was around 18:00, just before the intersection with Canyon Rincon Trail. I was moderately wet, cold, and miserable, so I started looking for a campsite. I happened to be on a steep part of the trail but climbed up the hill a bit to an aspen grove and found a flat spot for the night. By 19:00 I was out cold.Aug 13, 2012 at 8:37 am #1902264
I often encounter an odd phenomenon my first night on the trail. Bear Panic. It only hits on the first night- evidently on following nights I'm too tired to care, but that first night I seem to wake up to every rustle to clutch my spray and shout "Git, bear!" I am quite certain that I have amused many deer and chipmunks with these shenanigans…
This camp was above the trail, over a little hummock that I had spotted a hundred feet up or so. But the spot seemed oddly "used." Perhaps it was a bedding down spot for some larger critter. Of course all night I was wondering if said critter would return. Anyway, the next morning I had a yard sale to dry out my gear.
While the gear dried I had a "brew-up", as our commonwealth colleagues would say. After breakfast all was packed and I was off. I was carrying 1.5L of water but I had an empty 2L bladder in case I thought I needed more. But it turns out that the trip was positively damp- there was water everywhere and I had no trouble topping up regularly. There weren't any burn bans in effect in Rio Grande National Forest, either, so I could use my Tri-Ti.
Shortly I passed the turnoff to Canyon Rincon Trail. In her description of this loop in her guide Donna Ikenberry describes turning up Canyon Rincon to cross to Roaring Gulch and back down, but I decided to keep heading up the South Fork of the Conejos. As it would turn out I came back DOWN Canyon Rincon, as you can see on the map, but that wasn't my initial plan.
Eventually the trail ends at a T-intersection with Glacier Trail (FS trail #711), where there is a pleasant meadow.
I decided to make a slight detour and headed west to have lunch at Blue Lake. This would also allow me to tag the Continental Divide while I was at it, since Blue Lake sits almost right on it. The terrain was meadows and forest interspersed. For the next several hours I was in rolling hills on almost a "high plateau."
FS trail #711 was well-worn by horsemen and easy to follow, much like FS trail #726 earlier. In some places it was worn knee-deep, and in others the horsemen had spread out enough to create "triple-track."
I came across a horse camp on my way to blue lake. No one was home, but there were horse pickets set out for use.
Further along, a fine little swamp…
…before coming upon Blue Lake.
The tree-covered ridge on the left side of the frame is the Continental Divide. I worked my way up the CDT along this ridge a little way just to say that I did, then returned to the lake for lunch.
Just after finishing lunch a group of four horsemen also stopped nearby for a break. Then it was time to get back on my route- I headed back east on FS trail #711, past the intersection where I had come up FS Trail #724 and finally up into more subalpine terrain.
Crossing the flats toward Glacier Lake the daily thunderstorms again made their appearance, so I started to move with some expedition to get across and down low again. Luckily the first storm was north of me and heading east.
But another appeared behind me and was headed towards me, prodding me to keep up the pace. I certainly got some views in, though…
Glacier Lake was my last landmark before I could get down off the high ground, and I made it with lots of time to spare before the thunderstorm hit. I am forced to assume that Glacier Lake was named at some point in the past when the "glacier" was more impressive.
You can just barely see the dark clouds in the left side of that last frame. This should have been the highest point of my hike at 12040 feet or so, but I would take a wrong turn later in the day that would get me trivially higher. Anyway, I was glad to start the switchbacks into upper Canyon Rincon towards Twin Lakes.
Here's a look down Canyon Rincon:
Coming down the switchbacks I could see a camp with a large white canvas A-frame tent in the basin, either for outfitters or ranchers. After a bit of fumbling around in the marshy ground trying to follow the trail I found FS trail #711 again and passed Twin Lakes where there were five dome-tents set up, though I saw no people.
I did encounter a couple of horsemen, who inquired if I had seen any sheep. I had not. Shortly I passed four more horsemen with two dogs- evidently from the same set of hands as the two I had just passed- hauling some freight to their camp. I crossed Hansen Creek and headed east intending to find the Roaring Gulch Trail (FS trail #720) for my hike back out. But as I mentioned before, the trails that are easy to follow tend to be ones that horsemen use. There is a marsh at the low point before the trail starts climbing again, which complicates things. I saw no turn-offs to my right except for webs of light game trails, and ended up on the trail toward the switchbacks down to Saddle Creek. The weather fluctuated from rain showers to the sunniest bright skies imaginable, and back and forth several times. I donned and removed my rain gear three times before it cleared for the last time. The view down into the Saddle Creek drainage was spectacular, but at the time my camera was buried under my rain gear so I have no photo. This was my high point at around 12100 feet. If I had gone down there it would have meant a long road walk back to my truck. On my Trails Illustrated map there is another trail that heads off to the east from this point towards peak 12555 that eventually meets the Roaring Gulch Trail, but it doesn't exist. I could see a small section of game trail on the hillside across the valley but I was in no mood to bushwhack all the way over there and cross the hill and hope that I could find a way down the steep slope and gulch on the far side.
Well, I'd had enough fun for one day, the sun was getting low in the sky, and I was worn out from all the searching back and forth for a way to connect to Roaring Gulch Trail, so I called it quits and pitched camp.Aug 13, 2012 at 8:38 am #1902265
The next day broke very lovely. I woke to a group of eight passing on the trail nearby, headed for the Saddle Creek drainage. I had just plopped down where my energy ran out so it wasn't the most scenic campsite, but it wasn't bad either.
I had thought about what to do and decided to head back down and look for the turnoff to Roaring Gulch Trail again. But to no avail… There was a web of game trails all leading down the gulch that would ramify and merge, but they all petered out or ended at blow-downs. I could have just kept bushwhacking and probably would have found the trail but my sense of adventure was lacking, so after an hour I quit. I headed back toward Twin Lakes to take the Canyon Rincon Trail (FS trail #722) back to the South Fork of the Conejos and back out the way I had come in, on FS trail #724. I passed the man and one son from the family of six while headed back. They had found that bite-valve, by the way. A little further on I noticed several light aircraft and a helicopter orbiting overhead, and I would see them all the rest of the day. I thought that they might be looking for stock, since that one horseman had asked me if I'd seen any sheep.
The Canyon Rincon Trail turned out to be another easy-to-follow trail, popular with the horsemen. I even found a drover coat one had lost some past year, but it was infested with ants so I didn't pack it out. Canyon Rincon was reasonably scenic.
Early on there was a hard set of switchbacks- harder going down than they would be going up, at least for 40-odd-year-old knees. After that it was just a rolling trail down the canyon.
Then it was just a matter if heading out down the way I had come up. I did start feeling pretty lousy near the intersection. I knew that I had been drinking plenty of water, and urinating commensurately, but I realized that I hadn't eaten much and that what I had was short on salt. So, I stopped to brew up some Ramen noodles. Sure enough, it perked me right up.
(I did mention that I like aspens, right?)
I was back at my truck by 15:00. There I found a helicopter with blades turning in the trailhead parking lot. Shortly it took off but I found a couple of folks wearing Colorado Division of Wildlife jackets. They told me that all of the aircraft was an Elk- and Bighorn-tagging effort. Interesting, but I had a date with a double-cheeseburger in Alamosa, so I was in a hurry to be on the road…Aug 13, 2012 at 10:54 am #1902313
Randy MartinBPL Member
Thanks for sharing your trip. I have had plans to do that loop since last year and have my map all ready to go and just trying to find the right time to do it. I am thinking some time in late September possibly. Definitely seems like an out of way place that would see few visitors. I have also heard that wildlife sightings are common in the area.
Glad you posted a number of pictures. Backpacker magazine has this loop (though abbreviated to use the Rincon trail as the Western most portion of the loop and not the Glacier Trail) on their online site. That's where I was introduced to it. However, they don't have too many photos and so it was nice to get some better sense of the area from your report.
Looking on my map and comparing to your google map route I can see just how close you were to the Roaring Gulch trail #720 that you were trying to find. Based on your feedback about the confusion with pack trails I will definitely have some key way points stored on my GPS when I do the loop.Aug 13, 2012 at 11:22 am #1902324
Going up South Fork but turning to ascend Canyon Rincon and going down Roaring Gulch is exactly the route that Donna Ikenberry describes in the Falcon Guide to the Weminuche and San Juans, too, so I have to wonder if that's where Backpacker got the idea. The Division of Wildlife guys I spoke to said that Roaring Gulch trail is easier to follow when you ascend it- it just gets unclear near the top where I was trying to find it. So, though it might be more strenuous it may be easier to navigate counterclockwise.Aug 13, 2012 at 11:55 am #1902342
Randy MartinBPL Member
For those that are in to peaks as a side trip, Conejos Peak 13,172ft, looks to be a relatively easy up and down hike from your second campsite.
For those that may be interested in Conejos Peak as well here is a link to another trip report in this area that added that and did the loop from different trailhead.Aug 13, 2012 at 12:02 pm #1902345
As a matter of fact there is an easily visible trail to Conejos Peak right where I crossed Hansen Creek, with a quite legible sign. It connects to the Tobacco Lake Trail, which passes 80 feet under the peak. I imagine it is an easy scramble up those final 80 feet. (And though the trail I saw was easily visible, I have no idea what the Tobacco Lake Trail is like, but looking at my map I'd imagine it's a real trail- it connects to the Saddle Creek trail which leads down into the town of Platoro. Thus it seems like a likely horse route.)Aug 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm #1902348
Tad EnglundBPL Member
@bestbuilderLocale: Pacific Northwest
Dean, I enjoyed the trail report, especially your thought process.
I doubt if I'll ever get to hike in that area of the country so it is nice to see all the pictures.Aug 16, 2012 at 6:16 pm #1903368
Ike JutkowitzBPL Member
@ikeLocale: Central Michigan
Nice writeup. I enjoyed your thoughts on the trip. Thanks.Aug 16, 2012 at 6:33 pm #1903372
Jay WilkersonBPL Member
@creachenLocale: East Bay
I really want to go to the Rockies. Excellent Stuff!!!!
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