Our dry autumn, an average winter's snowfall, and our dry spring are finally being followed by Wednesday's start of the San Juan mountains’ long-awaited monsoon season.
Let us hope that there is more rain than lightning in the afternoons to come, and that the fire danger rating diminishes in all of our national forests around here and beyond.
Fully clear of snowfields now, the trails are primed for hiking. The yearly fields of alpine wildflowers are moving into their staggered phases of blossoming. The short, three to four week season of high-altitude color is coming on, at last.
Since alpine tundra wildflowers typically die in the middle of August when the first frosts hit, now is the time to get into those zones and see the sights. Many mountain streams have become passable again for foot travel.
What trails are now accessible to those of us able to travel from a trailhead under our own power, without high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles? And how about accessibility for hikers or trail runners who can handle a 4-mile, round-trip hike, not quite up to the timberline?
For going longer and higher, where can the endurance athletes find a good day's worth of rambling where the vistas are as broad as the air is thin?
The Bridge of Heaven region has trails that can satisfy each of these types. It may require, of course, an early rise and a willingness to avoid the typical afternoon thunder and lightning by starting back down the trail before 1 p.m. or so. No use in tempting fate by pushing one's luck when high in these mountains during monsoon season.
A forty minute drive south from Montrose on U.S. 550 leads to trail segments with spectacular views that can suit all of the outdoors travelers described above. A left turn onto Ouray County Road 14 doubles back like a hairpin from U. S. 550. Passing by the fork of Road 14A, then taking the left turn at the wye, leads to Dexter Creek.
Often there is room to park here. Avoid the Dexter Creek Trailhead itself, just above where parking occurs. This then presents the opportunity to pick one's way across the currently low level of water in the creek.
Recall that heavy, localized rains the day before your planned hike may have raised this water level surprisingly quickly. Having crossed the creek and gone a mile and a half up the old mining road (which is the endpoint for 4WD travel entry also), the trailhead map and signpost marks the beginning of the uphill Horsethief Trail.
After hiking (or running) two miles from the trailhead (first through aspen and later through spruce and fir), the landscape opens up onto a ridge that offers fine views westward to the town of Ouray below and the Camp Bird Road beyond. That is a common turning around point, making for a fine 4-mile hike round-trip if you drove across the creek.
How about making it an 8.5 mile round-trip, instead? If so, one can continue on uphill to the Bridge of Heaven, which is a natural ridge, but poetically named because of the spectacular views of surrounding peaks and valleys. At 12,368 feet above sea level, this area is just above the treeline.
Most hikers in the area turn around by this point, after eating and re-hydrating and enjoying the views. Necessarily always keeping an eye on the sky for storm potential, such storms can still surprise even the well-prepared who may have briefly let down their guard, so be forewarned.
For those who cannot get enough of some of the finest mountain views in the world, more basins await beyond the Bridge of Heaven. The first water available since Dexter Creek, endurance athletes who need to refill and purify water for their bottles may or may not find it in Cascade Creek. This is a drop in elevation of 500 feet.
As Cascade Creek can be dry in its upper stretches by this time in a dry summer, continuing uphill again on the trail leads to Cascade Pass after a 400-feet ascension. Another half mile on the trail leads to Difficulty Creek, and more certain access to water for purifying and chugging.
Even further brings the foot traveler to a point on the trail which is nearing the base of Wildhorse Peak. A dramatic, angular, soaring peak, the hike has required between 3,000-4,000 vertical feet of uphill hiking or running. This makes for a couple of miles more than a half-marathon of distance covered, to get there and then get back to the Horsethief Trailhead.
Go only with the usual proper preparations of map, raingear, and so on, to see those views.
If the rain clouds allow.