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2004Travelogue # 23 Wolf Creek Pass
Hwy 160 RV Park
Pagosa Springs, Colorado
Places of Interest:
Colorado: Pagosa Springs, Wolf Creek Pass, Piedra River and Gorge, The Springs, Chimney Rock Archaeological Area
7/26 It was a cold morning in Pagosa Springs, encouraging Peggy and me to sleep in. Shortly after 8:30, I was up making coffee when I heard a knock on our door. There stood our son, Scott, who said he'd already been by at 7:30 and knocked but seeing no sign of life, he gave us another hour to sleep. He was on his way to Wolf Creek Pass to collect plant samples and wanted to know if we'd like to tag along. Scott is the NRCS (Natural Resource Conversation Service) Rangeland Specialist for Pagosa, Durango, Silverton, South Fork, and Alamosa, Colorado.
Putting on our hiking shoes, grabbing our water bottles and backpack, we hopped into his truck and were off. After driving US-160 about 18 miles to the top of Wolf Creek Pass, we took a gravel side-road even farther up to the weather tower at the Continental Divide.
When we parked, we noticed that parked next to us were two couples with their dogs. They were unloading their SUV onto their backs, preparing for an 11-day hike on the Continental Divide Scenic Trail. Even the dogs had backpacks and carried their own food.
Congress, in 1978, designated this a National Trail because it follows the Continental Divide from Mexico to Canada. The Trail goes through 5 states, 25 National Forests, 8 Bureau of Land Management resource areas, 3 National Parks and 475 watersheds. Today, we were in the Weminuche Wilderness (Will-ma-nuch). This Wilderness covers 500-thousand-acres and is named for the Weminuche Indians, a band of Ute Indians.
Scott took flowering plant samples from a Boreal Forest of cold fir spruce that is sub-Alpine, below timberline. He was collecting these plant specimens for an "Herbarium" for the San Juan Conservation Service. He carries with him a homemade flower/plant press, in which he places 3 samples of the same species between layers of newspaper. His press can hold about two dozen different species. He also carries a field lens for close examination, makes notes, and numbers each sheet of flowers to correspond with these notes. When he returns to the office, he matches the right plant to his notes and then identifies its taxonomic name.
Peggy was his number one field hand, digging up the plants, roots and all and giving them to the botanist. I took pictures and observed the scenery. There is only a 6-week growing cycle in the sub-Alpine eco-system; to catch the wildflowers in bloom was special.
Our elevation was 10,600 feet, so I found a resting spot on a nice fallen Douglas fir, with a beautiful view of the mountain range to the north toward Creed, Colorado. There, in those mountains, are the headwaters of the Rio Grande that we have followed since the Gulf of Mexico. I sat on my log watching Scott and Peggy walk the "spine of the continent" and took pictures of beautiful wild flowers, such as "Old Man of the Mountains" a yellow, daisy-like flower and purple "Hairbells", while in the distance a thundershower moved across the horizon.
The showers began to drift our way, accompanied by a few lighting bolts and claps of thunder. It was the typical afternoon showers and time to get off the ridge. Our jackets felt good as we headed back to the truck.
7/27 After lunch, Scott and I stopped at the hardware store to buy me a Colorado Fishing License. Then back to the motorhome to gather our fishing gear and head downtown to the San Juan River, for an afternoon of trout fishing.
The Public Parking area in town is along the River and close to the center of activity. This is where the "tubers" climb into their inner tubes and float the rapids. Of course, this is not too great for trout fishing but Scott had read that this was where they were catching them, so here we were.
It was a pleasant afternoon, a few clouds, gentle breeze, and the sound of the cascading river made for an enjoyable time. The limit for the day was two trout apiece; we caught our limit and released the rest.
Leaving the River, I dropped Scott at his home, and returned to the motorhome. Cristina and Scott were coming for dinner; I arranged the picnic table and chairs and helped Peggy prepare the food. They soon joined us for an outdoor evening meal, wonderful conversation and fellowship.
7/28 We were off to the backcountry this morning. Scott and Cristina planned a backpacking hike and lunch for us, along the Piedra River and Gorge. It was a beautiful morning as we traveled the gravel road to the trailhead. Here, we parked our car, put on our packs, and started down the canyon trail.
The kids wanted to give us a sample of what they enjoy doing. They will often pack their gear inside backpacks, such as food, tents, etc. and be on the trail for 2-4 days. They are both experienced hikers and have been down this trail many times; today, we were going to get a taste of their life on the trail.
Winding our way along the steep gorge, we looked down 30 to 40 feet and saw the Piedra River cutting its channel through and around massive rocks with mini-waterfalls. Looking up, we saw shear rock cliffs and along the trail we noticed maidenhair ferns tucked into many small crevices. We came across a young couple setting up their gear for rock climbing and repelling.
About two miles farther, the trail opened into a wide valley. Here Scott selected a spot to set-up camp. We took off our packs, sitting in the shade of cottonwoods and willows, on an old fallen pine and snacked on trail-mix. Scott and I put our rods together, tied our flies, and headed to the River. Cristina found a shady spot to stretch out, read and take a snooze, while Peggy just sat, soaking it all up.
After fishing, Scott pulled out their single propane burner, heated water and prepared trail chili macaroni and beef stroganoff for lunch. As we ate, we saw thunderstorms starting to build, up the canyon. So, finishing lunch and clean up, we packed up and began our walk out.
The return trip was just as beautiful as the journey in, but from a different perspective. We made it to the car just as the showers began. To experience this outing with Scott and Cristina was a blessing for us. To watch them, to follow them and enjoy their experiences was a joy for Peggy and me.
I will definitely take my muscle cramp pills before bedtime but first, a stop at the largest and deepest mineral hot springs in the world. The hot therapeutic mineral water was the headliner this evening. "The Springs" is known as one of the "Crown jewels" of the Four Corners area and is a hot springs resort. The name "Pag-Osah" is the Ute Indian word meaning "healing waters". Here, along the banks of the San Juan River, is a bathhouse with 17 outdoor individual pools of naturally hot therapeutic mineral water just beckoning to my tired, cramping muscles.
In our bathing suits, we sampled about 10 of the 17 pools, each with regulated different temperatures and mountain views. The only drawback to the evening of muscle soaking was that we smelled like stinky hard-boiled eggs, but it was a good trade-off. We were definitely relaxed after four hours in those hot, magical waters.
7/29 Colorado is one, of only a few states, that offers Dental Hygienist Clinics and we needed our teeth cleaned. Selecting a Clinic nearby, we were very pleased with the professional care and thorough service. Hopefully, more states will soon offer these Hygienist Clinics.
Scott's good friend from his Dallas Boy Scout days, Bill Weislak, arrived this evening. Bill was returning home to Dallas after spending several weeks visiting his sister in Salt Lake City. Tomorrow the two of them will spend the day in a canoe, trout fishing at Williamson Lake.
Talking about trout fishing, it was time for me to try my hand once again. The guy's left for Scott's house, Peggy wanted to relax around the motorhome, and I wanted to wet a hook.
7/30 We enjoyed a leisurely morning. It was "mail call" at the Pagosa Springs Post Office, after which we visited Cristina's office on Pagosa Street (the town's main street). She is the accountant for the Humane Society. Cristina gave us a great tour of the whole complex, which is located in the former space of the Baptist Church. The main part of the building, on the ground floor, is a Thrift Store, the basement is used for storage and meeting rooms, while the second level is her office as well as storage for a large inventory of items they sell on the Internet. When leaving, we told her to stop by our place this afternoon, since Scott and Bill were at Williamson Lake. Also, she and Peggy needed to do a little shopping to find her a sewing machine.
After shopping, I worked on our trout dinner, stuffing them with butter, red and green bell peppers and unions, then wrapped each in foil and placed it on the grill. Peggy and Cristina prepared the side dishes and we had an enjoyable dinner outside at the picnic table. From our table, we had a grand view of the mountains and also, since it faced the greenbelt, we could even watch the deer as they fed at twilight.
7/31 This evening Scott and Cristina planned another special event for us. We drove a few miles west of Pagosa, to the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, to experience "The Land, the Legends, and the Legacies".
Tonight, July 31st was a full moon and also a "blue moon", which is two full moons in one month. We drove up the mountain road, parked the car and hiked a trail to the top of a mesa to view the twin pinnacles, special to the ancestral Puebloan people, known as Chimney Rock. Today, these prominent and striking spires mark one of the most curious and intriguing archaeological sites in the Four Corners.
It was very crowded on the mesa with many July tourists, plus the weather was good and clear. We let the girls out, with blankets and water, to head up the mesa to get good seats on the canyon's rim, while we parked the car. Cristina knew the drill; she had us seated on the edge, with no one in front, just the full moon rising over the mountains.
Scott and I parked the car, grabbed some gear and headed up the long winding path to the top. We stopped along the way for me to catch my breath, look at the beautiful valleys below, and take a few pictures. By the time we nestled into our site on the edge of the rim that the girls reserved, the evening coolness was settling in.
To the northeast were two large reddish sandstone pinnacles rising from the weathered mesa and on December 21, the Winter Solstice, the full moon rises between the two pillars noting the "lunar standstill" phenomenon. Just as Stonehenge was a celestial calendar, Chimney Rock might have been one to the Chacoans, measuring the movements of the moon.
As we sat on our blanket facing the east, the sun was setting in the west; the long shadows were moving across the valley and rocks below. The mesa offered us a spectacular panorama of the Piedra and Stollsteimer River valleys on either side of the mesa. We were sitting about 10 feet from the edge of the cliff and it was over 1,000 feet straight down to the forest below. A thousand years ago this land was the ancestral home of an ancient people and tonight we stepped back in time and became part of that history.
As the sun set, Charles Martinez, a Jicarilla Apache, played his cedar flute. The name of the piece was "Releasing" and as he started to play the rocky ledge got hauntingly quiet. He said to us, "Let go of your hectic world, release the tension, calm yourself, take a deep breath, and let your wings fly." He played quietly. I felt a peace settle on the gathering as the sound of the cedar flute echoed the "ancient ones", a swallow darted about, and the clouds turned shades of pastel colors. Twilight approached as he played his third song, "Circle of Life". One of the guests beat a rhythmic pattern on a small Indian drum while another shook a rattle, accompanying each drum beat.
By now the group had mellowed and Stan Plum, an archeologist, gave a brief
lecture on the Puebloan creation and how Chimney Rock connected with Chaco Canyon,
about 130 miles to the southwest. A little after 9 pm the moon began to rise
over the eastern mesa. At first it was just a small bulge of light at a point
on the mesa, and then the light got brighter and brighter until the edge of
the moon peeped over the top. Eventually, it shone brightly above the mesa.
It will be December before it comes up directly between the two pinnacles, but
for me, I was blessed tonight.
It was a meaningful time with my family, a "time-out" to return to the mysterious wonders of the past, in a majestic full-moon setting atop a mesa. I think we each experienced "The Land, the Legends, the Legacies" in our own special way.
Bob & Peggy Woodall