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Wet Mountain Valley Wanderings

Posted in Events on February 25, 2014 Comment (0)
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Photographers: Map Courtesy of National Geographic

It is said, “Not all who wander are lost.” It was certainly true for me. I was, without a doubt, wandering, but I certainly wasn’t lost. I wasn’t even temporarily misplaced. I was actually consciously working to fill my knowledge gaps on the Colorado map. The best way to do that was to wander in some of the “missing” areas.

After more than 30 years of toil in corporate America, I was finally free from the grind of regular workdays and having to count those ever-so-precious vacation days. I could quit worrying about cramming maximum recreation into limited slices of time and structuring everything around extended weekends. I could wander!

I set about visiting some of the parts of Colorado that had somehow missed my exploration over the past 30-odd years. A nearby and intriguing area was the Wet Mountain Valley in southern Colorado. The valley is located directly east of the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains between U.S. Highways 50 and 160. Most of the roads in the valley looked relatively tame, so my wanderings would necessarily include routes to add 4WD zest and interest.

The Sangre de Christo range has never supported many motorized conduits between the Wet Mountain Valley and the immense San Luis Valley to the west. The topography of this rugged mountain spine severely limited viable roads. The addition of the Sangre de Christo Wilderness Area in 1993 has further trimmed the available routes to four. Of those four, only two still traverse from one valley to the other. The other two ascend the passes from the east but dead-end against wilderness boundary signs.

The remaining roads in the Sangre de Christo range are Medano Pass, Hermit and Mosca Passes (both vehicle accessible only from the east side), and Hayden Pass. Medano Pass has an additional claim to fame. Its western terminus is located within the confines of Great Sand Dunes National Park. It is not often that National Parks include bona fide four-wheeling opportunities. While I had previously run Medano Pass from east to west many years ago, I had never done it in the “uphill” direction. Hence my wandering plans included using Medano as the entry point into the Wet Mountain Valley.

The Hermit Pass road is actually smoother once it leaves the trees behind. The Sangre de Christo range is a very narrow spine of the southern Rockies with nine peaks towering over 14,000 feet. Hermit Pass is the only alpine motorized access between Highways 50 and 160.

Since I now had more time and schedule flexibility, I also intended to better experience the sand. I had previously visited the Great Sand Dunes several times but had never actually taken the time to walk up on the dunes. I fixed that omission on this trip! Prepare yourself for some major exertion (unless it has very recently rained) and heed the warnings the Park Service posts. Walking up the side of the steep dunes is hard work and the sand is hot!

Most of the challenge in crossing Medano Pass comes from that same extremely soft and seemingly bottomless sand. With my calf muscles adequately worked, it was time to return to the Comanche and let motorized mechanical advantage propel me over the pass route. The plan was simple -- head up over Medano Pass with the setting sun at my back. As soon as the park boundary was cleared, I would be in National Forest and could look for a convenient campsite. But beware! Even when you are wandering, plans can go awry.

Almost immediately, I came to a closed and locked gate on the road to Medano. A mountain deluge the week before had rearranged the topography enough that the Park Service deemed the pass unfit for vehicles until adequate repairs had been made. The Park Service was still working to get the road re-opened; I was not going to be allowed to test my skill and truck against the sand (or the missing road) on this trip.

With a sigh and the sun already sliding low in the sky, I headed south out of the park to do an end-around via the pavement of U.S. 160. About 2 miles shy of North La Veta Pass, I left the pavement and headed north on County Road 127.

This was country well worth wandering. The road rose and fell over small ridges and wound in and out of massive aspen groves. There was only one problem. It was time to pitch a tent ahead of the threatening rain, but everything on both sides of the road was clearly posted as private property. A quick look at the map confirmed it; the nearest public land was the San Isabel National Forest 20 miles north. So north I went, admiring the little slices of personal heaven area residents enjoyed.

I hit pavement at Malachite. While it would be a stretch to still call the place a town, it was evidently once a bigger place. The picturesque remains of an impressive stone building (a school?) demanded that I stop to capture some images. I crossed State Highway 69 just west of Gardner (another location with some very picturesque buildings) and continued north on County Road 634.

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It was now getting late, but the road was making a beeline for the forest boundary. And what beautiful country! Rolling tree-covered hills bisected by long grassy meadows and ranches nestled down close to water sources. Finally passing the San Isabel National Forest sign, I took the first fork off the main road and dropped my tent in the first spot flat enough to accommodate it. None too soon! Darkness fell and with it came the soft pitter-patter of rain on the tent. What would the morrow bring? Plans have to be fluid when you are wandering!

I woke to a gorgeous sunrise as the rising sun painted the lingering clouds pink and purple. The early morning drive north was a true treat. As the road climbed higher, the terrain transitioned to huge, grass-covered hills. To the west, the jagged broken teeth of the Sangres provided a continuous and dramatic backdrop. I continued to wander northward following Road 634, then Road 635, and finally Road 360, experiencing some of the prettiest new country I had enjoyed in a long time. Way too soon, I emerged back on the pavement of State 165 near the wide spot in the road called Farview. I followed the highway north to McKenzie Junction and then headed west toward the twin towns of Westcliffe and Silver Cliff.

Climbing through the hills on the east side of the Wet Mountain Valley, the Sangre de Christo range is a constant and rugged backdrop.

This pair of towns has a fascinating history of silver mining, and both are still the principal towns in the Wet Mountain Valley. They could well be the site of future wanderings, but my main goal on this trip was straight west of Westcliffe on County Road 160: Hermit Pass. Hermit Pass is great four-wheeling fun if you like your routes steep and rocky and your destinations lofty. The road terminates at the wilderness boundary at over 13,000 feet.

I slowly ground my way upward, enjoying the whine of a transfer case in low, the creak and groan of the truck (yes, it’s a unibody Jeep), and the bang and rattle of the control arm. Hey! That didn’t sound right at all. Sure enough, the upper control arm was rattling free of its bracket, the bolt finally having succumbed to accumulated stress. The search through my toolbox yielded a spare bolt (I had thrown in some extras the last time one broke) but no associated nuts. I used a ratchet strap to coax the arm back into place, and McGyvered a substitute retainer to take the place of a proper washer and nut. The fix looked dependable enough, and the high country still beckoned, so upward I continued. It would take a lot more than a broken bolt to curtail my urge to wander.

A late summer snowdrift stopped me one switchback below the end of the road, but a quick thin-air hike soon had me at the very crest of the Sangre range. I soaked in the immense view in all directions. Back to the east, the Wet Mountain Valley sits 5,000 feet below and stretches out of sight both north and south. The nearby peaks of the mighty Sangre de Christo range punctuate the horizon to the west, blocking out the even more expansive San Luis Valley below. Closer at hand, the alpine tundra is studded with a profusion of tiny wildflowers. Overhead, the updrafts out of San Luis Valley churned and roiled the clouds into towering cumulus columns that threatened rain. It was time to leave.

The end of the line for this trip was the second switchback below Hermit Pass. A late summer snow bank still occupied the last switchback in the road, so I accomplished the last few feet to the top with lung power.

The 5-mile trip down was every bit as slow as the journey up, but late afternoon found me back in Westcliffe (for a couple more control arm bolts and nuts). I then headed north on Highway 69. I had one last Sangre road left for the day, and I hoped this one still actually went up and over. North to Highway 50, then west to Coaldale, and finally a turn south on County Road 6 put the road to Hayden Pass over my hood. Hayden Pass at 10,700 feet is not as dramatic as Hermit, but it still climbs over 4,000 feet from the Arkansas River in only 9 miles. The climb is relentless with the last 4 miles averaging better than a 14-percent grade.

The San Luis Valley side of the pass is even steeper, dropping 2,700 feet in the first 2 miles, including a long and loose rock-strewn hill. Finally emerging from the trees, one is suddenly presented with the huge expanse of the San Luis Valley spread at your feet. Across the valley beckon the old roads of the Cochetopa Hills and the historic riches of Bonanza. With no specific schedule to keep, I dropped the Comanche hood toward the valley floor with no particular destination in mind. I am now a wanderer!

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