24 July 2014

Capitol-Snowmass: West Snowmass Creek

White River National Forest

Locate the trailhead.


DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4

(Day 4 and final.)  It rained off and on during the night and at one time I woke to a jackrabbit testing my bivy for edibility. Yesterday's short day made sense yesterday, but seemed less sensible in the evening, and not just because of the rubber eating jackrabbit. Besides the teeth marks in my hiking stick handle, he has done no damage. It is just that I do not see where to camp tonight and it would only be a slightly long day to finish if I had walked a little further yesterday. I decide to hike out anyway and get up with the breaking light. There is a pause in the rain with more threatening, so it seems like a very good time to pack up and try to get my bivy dry. My little roof is sufficiently under a tree that it is already dry after the light rain.

beaver home in the lake
A pile of sticks in the middle of the water makes me think there may be beaver in the area.

broken wooden dam
A broken dam leaves another suspicious pile of sticks on land.


The rain holds off for a bit and is still very light when it comes. The vegetation beside the trail the wet enough that water is starting to soak into my boots. The view up toward Pierre Lakes is impressive through the mist. A waterfall pours down and it offers one more look at Snowmass Mountain. Trees hide the even more rugged mountains on the right, but sometimes a rock slide reaches across the trail.

Pierre Lakes
A waterfall pours below Pierre Lakes which sit below Snowmass Mountain. The more pointy peak in front is a minor peak.

alder with a pine
A fur tree trying to get a foothold in the forest of alder.

flats with mud flows
A moment of easy flats where a number of debris flows cross the trail.

house sized boulder with trees growing up the sides
The odd house sized boulder tossed off from the cliffs that seem a little further away than that.

horsefly on purple flowers
Pollinators come in many forms.

Eventually, I come to the edge of the wilderness and a section of private property. I can see the west fork of Snowmass emptying itself over a line of rocks in the bushes and into the creek that now seems to be tipping the scales to a river to me. I take the West Snowmass Trail at the junction and drop down to it hoping there is a bridge. There is no bridge, just swift snow melt surging across my path. I pull off my socks so there is a little less to soak up water and am thankful that the general soaking of my boots makes it that much easier to go ahead and dunk them totally. The creek only comes up to my knees as I make my way across, but it is swift enough that I have to give way to the current a little with each step. On the other side, the boots come off again and sit upside down draining while I grab the second breakfast I have been putting off suspicious that I would be draining my boots. My feet were cold and starting to hurt in the water, but it is surprisingly nice to give them a little air and just a tiny bit of sun that is trying to break through.

West Snowmass Creek joins the main creek under bushes
It is hard to see West Snowmass Creek join the main creek along the rocky and bushy shore.

no bridge across Snowmass Creek
There is no bridge across Snowmass Creek.

peaks in the distance from the field
Looking back up Snowmass, there are a few peaks in the distance.

It is initially a muddy walk across the field and back up into the mountains. There are a couple irrigation ditches to hop once up into the trees, and then there is another gate exiting the private land and returning to the wilderness. I suspect I am back in a cattle grazing allotment and every step without a columbine seems to confirm this, but not so well as the cluster of cows.

West Snowmass Creek
West Snowmass Creek is not nearly as big as the main creek.

Trails turn back up the hill in various locations, but usually with some clue that they are not the correct one. I continue without turning and come to an old bit of fence without a gate. Perhaps this was once the end of the allotment, but no longer. The columbines are still missing after the fence. The trail does not often get in view of the creek, but there are tributaries that cross it. There is a well used campsite off to the side, and then more cows.

Mariposa lily
The Mariposa lilies can be found in the grazing allotments.

I come to a meadow with a great view and just have top stop for a moment before continuing on. While waiting, I notice that there is a bit of trail starting up a little bit away and someone down in the trees past the meadow chopping wood. Following the well established path down into the meadow, it suddenly ends a little way short of a large tent surrounded by the electrical fence tape that the local Backcountry Horsemen find so useful. It seems to be some kind of barn, but is certainly not where I want to go. Heading over toward the chopping sounds, I practically trip over the skeleton of a cow and then am greeted first by a bull dog, then a couple men who identify the track I had seen not quite connecting with the trail as the rest of it.

Clark Peak
A great view across the meadow and up to Clark Peak.

The trail climbs up from the meadow, leaving West Snowmass Creek for good, to the junction where I have my options for traveling back to Capitol Creek. On the way, I choose poorly along a path and find myself jumping over small trees that seem to have been kicked many times by horse hooves. It seems like it has been too long since maintenance, and I try the other route stacking a line of rocks across the wrong one. This also has trees across it, but they do not seem to have been there as long.

Mount Daly
Mount Daly to the southwest and perhaps the target of the horseman used trail I wandered a little way down.

At the junction, both trails look equally used. Weather is moving back in, which encourages the longer route on Nickelson Creek, but I would rather go up Haystack Mountain. It is not very far and I could always stop to camp under the trees somewhere. The thought of going up at least a little mountain is attractive at the moment and I am even looking for possible camping spots when I again choose wrong in a meadow and cross to a camping spot where someone has built a few things with bailing twine. Of course, since bailing twine weathers poorly, it is all falling apart. I can hear water flowing a little way past the site. It looks like a good place to stop, if I desire to.

looking back over the valley
Looking over the West Snowmass Creek valley and into the Snowmass Creek valley. Now the cliffs hidden by the trees before can be seen.

blue flowers and buds
Blue flowers along the trail.

Climbing still, I pass the source of the stream by the camp tumbling over rocks in lovely ways. Columbines suddenly become numerous in the last hundred feet to the pass. Thunder rumbles as I approach the pass by Haystack Mountain. Going up the mountain does not seem to be an option after all. The pass, on the other hand, is so close and the thunder is distant and the trees are not lightning struck, so I go for it. The rain starts as I go over the top and gets a mix of hail as it gets harder. A particularly umbrella-like tree seems like a good place to pull on my rain gear as memories of going over passes in the Sierra Nevadas, hitting them as the rain and hail starts day after day, come back. To prove I learned something then, I pull on my rain pants as well. The columbines vanish again just as quickly as they started on the other side.

Haystack Mountain
Approaching Haystack Mountain and the little stream as things get stormier.

looking back
Not so stormy behind.

southern peaks
Sun over the far southern peaks.

dirt slide with an island tree in the middle
Coming back down into the Capitol Creek drainage.

The hardest of the rain has already stopped by the time I come out from under the protection of the trees, but it never quite finishes. The trail on the other side of the mountain is hard to follow because of the horse trails, but this side quickly becomes hard to follow because of the cow paths. One large, treed flat area that looks like good camping except for the water access, the trail goes everywhere. The siren call of a cut log takes me across it only to find there is no trail with the log. I try another option and start dropping down to the creek again. There is another group coming up the other way, so it must be possible to find the trail from that side. They are on a "54 mile, 6 day loop" which comes with the suggestion of trying for 12 mile days, which should finish it off a bit early. We get to discussing campsites and how my loop has none suggested and they do not like the suggestions for theirs. It comes out that while I quite enjoyed Avalanche Lake, surrounded by cliffs with the light just right, they found it dreadful with pouring rain, 40 mph winds, and mosquitoes. I have to admit there are mosquitoes. What a difference two days make. They're looking for a high campsite and I tell them about the little track off in the meadow just over the top. Hopefully it is what they are looking for although the view is not that extensive.

along the tributary to Capitol Creek
Coming down a small valley toward Capitol Creek.

trail like a cow path
Following a trail that looks like a cow path but occasionally has some sign of human building along it.

Capitol Creek tributary
A tributary to Capitol Creek draining down the other side of the valley.

Capitol Peak
Back in view of Capitol Peak. Oh, and some cows.

The cows are particularly thick at the end. I get down to the Capitol Creek trail well below the sign for West Snowmass Trail. I probably should have taken Capitol Ditch on the way back, but the "ditch" still puts me off. Since today is cool, most of the cows are out in the open fields instead of under the trees. Not all of them are, and the few that are under the trees no longer have a group of fellows to cluster near and instead proceed to go away by the easiest route, right down the trail I am following. Worse, they tend to be cows with calves, not all of them their own. The calves are the most scared of me and the most prone to continuing down the trail, churning the mud and cow pies into a slick and horrible mess. Then, there is a moo from behind me and I find a cow with an ear tag with a number exactly matching one of the odd calves in front of me. Oh, good, I am standing between mom and child. I step off the trail and the cow churns it into even more of a mess and then I have even more cows not understanding that they can just step off the trail. Then a wrong step in a spot where there are no right steps sinks my boot so deep in something like mud that it starts to come in the top. Eventually, the cows do manage to step off the trail. Wish for rinsing, and repeat. The only thing that saves me from falling every third step in the ruined trail. The trail is not safe, thanks to the cows, and the multiple times finding myself between a cow and its calf cannot be safe. I now do not find cows in the wilderness nearly tolerable and am wanting to know what I can do to try to get them out. I am also about ready to raise the pitch forks against whoever decided it was a good idea in the first place. The experience along the ditch is probably the same, but with fewer slopes.

meadow
Back down with the cows in Capitol Creek.

looking down on Capitol Creek
Just about back to the road and looking down on Capitol Creek as the harder rain comes back in.

Back at the road, I am even more glad that I did not bring my car all the way up to the trailhead now that the road is full of big holes, big rocks, and mud. Get one front wheel slipping and it becomes what is known as a wrong wheel drive. I chat a little with a Subaru driver who admits he plowed a bit of dirt on the way up. Everything else is much taller. I slog my way down the final two miles of my 18 mile day along the dreary road happy to know that I can soon pull on dry shoes and wash the mud like substance off these. There is even plenty of light and a bit of cloud clearing as I finish.




©2014 Valerie Norton
Posted 8 August 2014

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