A good omen was spotting another snowshoe hare on the way down the road to the cabin. I'm surprised how common they are – on our entire last trip we only saw one; on this trip we've seen dozens. I measured the road to the cabin: it climbs 1,500' in 2 miles, which works out to an average 14% grade (and there are stretches that actually go down). There's a good reason why that road seems steep :)
On the way down to the trail that climbs along the Uncompahgre River toward Engineer Pass, we spotted a deer along the road near Red Mountain Pass. This proved to be a good omen for the day, as we spotted something like a dozen deer during the day – including one beautiful young buck in the evening shortly before we got back to the cabin. We've missed seeing the deer and elk on this trip, but today partly made up for it.
When we got to the trailhead, I aired down to 24 pounds, and we were quickly glad I did – the trail was considerably rougher than either of us remembered, especially the part below Mineral Springs. The FJ made it through without issue; it was just more effort than we expected. There were a lot of people in that first stretch, in offroad vehicles of every description. We are typically the slowest vehicle around (we're busy gawking at what everyone else seems to be zooming by), so we often pull over in a wide spot to let people pass. We saw ATVs (singles and side-by-sides), dirt bikes, things that looked like dune buggies, jacked-up pickups, stock 4x4s, and massively modified 4x4s (including one whose roof must have been 10' off the ground!). There was much machinery noise as all these things roared by us. Thankfully, most of the obnoxious ones (from our perspective) were headed to the notorious Poughkeepsie Gulch, and the turnoff for that is relatively early on the trail. Things got much calmer after that :)
Just above Mineral Springs, just before the series of talus slope switchbacks that takes you to Engineer Pass, we stopped at a large meadow of lush, tall grass. Any dog lover will appreciate what happened next; the rest of you can skip to the next paragraph :). We let Miki and Race out for a prolonged and joyous session of fun and games that consisted almost entirely of finding reasons to race through the meadow at top speed. The dogs had the time of their lives, bounding and frolicking in the luxuriously soft grass. Debbie got one of their bright pink tennis balls and tossed it for the two of them to chase. I don't think there's anything else we could have done to make them happier. We stayed there for quite a while, until the dogs were panting and visibly slowing down. I tried my best to capture this in photos, but the dogs were an incredibly difficult subject, and the high-contrast environment didn't help things a bit. No matter; the photos I did manage to get evoke their joy and happiness for us...
Near the top of Engineer Pass, we ran into something that was new for us: a begging marmot. These creatures are seen all over the high meadows (and also in the high forests). They're usually fairly shy, running away was we approach by car or by foot. I never seen one actually chase down a car before, but that's what this one did – came right across the road to the driver's side door, and stood up looking straight at me. You could almost hear it saying “Feed me, you fool!” We did not :)
Passing over Engineer Pass was uneventful, though we did see something that surprised us. Just below the pass, on the Lake City side, there's some big construction effort underway. A large crane, several bulldozers, and a dozen or so workers were all hard at work. There's a large, sloping pile of dirt evidently resulting from their efforts. We couldn't get close enough to any of the workers to ask what they were doing, and there was no signage. It remains a mystery to us...
The road from Engineer Pass to Lake City mostly follows Henson Creek. The whole drive is quite pretty, and a lot of it is in a narrow rocky gorge formed by the creek; very scenic. There's also a lot of old mining history to explore. One of my favorite parts is a few miles that wander through large aspen groves. In this season, the trees filter the sunlight to a sort of greenish haze. There's enough reflection from the leaves to soften all the shadows. The result is a dreamy sort of light as you travel beneath them. And of course, these are quaking aspen, and when there's a breeze there's a lovely sound as well.
Along the way we passed a cabin that we've been watching for years. It's for sale, the overly creative real estate agent has named it “Thoreau's Cabin”. It is, of course, no such thing – but it certainly is a beautifully located and spectacular cabin. Check out the photos at the link to see what I mean. Every time we've seen it over the years, we gasp a little, and wonder if we should think about buying it. But as soon as we start thinking of the practicalities, we set those thoughts aside. The cabin is many miles down a four wheel drive only road, is high enough that you can only realistically live in it for 3 or 4 months a year (unless you really, really like snow), and you have to bring everything in and out of it over a 150' long pedestrian suspension bridge. That's the kind of place I might like to rent for a few weeks, but I don't think I'd really want to own it. Not unless I had a lot more disposable income than I do :)
Next stop was Lake City, which both Debbie and I are rather fond of. It's a kind of backwoods, slightly touristy place – but aimed squarely at the middle class, and not the beautiful people. Telluride it ain't :) But there are two places we wanted to return to. First up was the Sportsman BBQ Station. This place is a little hard to describe – it's a combination restaurant, fast food, gas station, curio shop, and service station. It's most easily identified by the enormous paper mache fish displayed in the island with the gas pumps. The people inside are as friendly as you've ever met. And the barbeque is to die for. I had a pulled BBQ pork sandwich that was simply outstanding – smoky, slightly sweet, perfectly spiced, and plentiful. The roll was plain, but good. The side of cole slaw was simple sweet and sour, and perfect as a complement. The iced tea was strong and delicious. Nothing fancy about it at all, just simple, plain, good food. Debbie had a “Fill 'er up” potato – a baked potato stuffed with BBQ pulled pork, cheese, and sour cream. The look of ecstasy on her face as she ate it told me it was great :) But it was also huge; she could only eat half of it, and (darned the bad luck!) the other half is sitting in our refrigerator at the cabin. After we finished that meal, we headed a couple blocks down the street to Mean Jean's coffee shop, where Debbie got an iced mocha and I got a plain iced coffee. I don't drink coffee very much any more, though I love it, because it does bad things to my stomach. I wasn't going to miss Mean Jean's though; it was just plain too good to pass by. We were not disappointed. I even ate the ice, because it tasted good too :)
Then we headed back up another road, from Lake City up to Cinnamon Pass. This road also runs along a creek (actually the Gunnison River) up toward American Basin, then up to the pass. Partway up this road we had a bit of a rude surprise – we saw several Jeeps stopped along the road, and from one of them a woman waved us to a stop. Then she told us that there had been a wreck just ahead, and the sheriff was there stopping all traffic. Their group had turned around and found a nicer place to wait. After some debate, we decided to wait as well. There were alternative routes back to Silverton, but they'd all add 2 or 3 hours to our trip – and it seemed likely that the wreck would be cleared up sooner than that. It actually all worked out just fine; we only waited 22 minutes, and then we saw the wrecker come back out and the traffic was unplugged. First the cars coming down from the pass went by, well over 100 of them (probably closer to 200; I stopped counting at 100). Then the dozen or so cars waiting to go up (including us) started up. We took up the tail end Charlie position, so we could go slow without holding anyone up.
As we drove along this road, we could see an afternoon storm brewing up over Cinnamon Pass. We were actually looking forward to this rain – we like the water in any case, but it would also knock down the dust every vehicle was throwing up. We ended up getting more than we bargained for in this storm, as you'll read shortly...
At one point we saw three Jeeps stopped on the road in front of us, right in the middle of the road. At first we thought one had broken down, but when I stopped and inquired, we found out they were gawking at a moose and its calf. We joined them in the gawking :) As we did, an older fellow mosied by on horse, with saddlebags full of wood he was collecting. Not something you see in Jamul!
As we got higher and approached the road up American Basin, the sky got stormier and we started feeling drops of rain. Coming toward us we saw a Jeep stopped, and the driver obscured by a map. I stopped alongside and asked if they were lost. The driver – a man – said no, he was just looking to see exactly where they were on the map. The passenger – a woman, most likely his wife – silently mouthed to me “He's lost!” with a “Help me, please!” expression. He actually had a decent topo map, but I don't think he really understood how to read topo maps. I pointed out where they were, and then asked where they were headed – because I was worried that they were staying in Ouray or some other distant place, and it was getting kind of late (about 5:30 PM) to be headed the direction they were. But it turns out they were headed for a campsite not far from Lake City, so all was ok. The woman gave me a big smile and seemed relieved; I suspect she thought they were in the wrong state, possibly even the wrong country :)
As we climbed the switchbacks toward Cinnamon Pass, we saw several deer, including one doe that looked very pregnant. We'd expect the deer to have all dropped their fawns by now, but maybe not. When we got to the pass itself, it was quite dark from the storm clouds, around 6:30 pm, spitting rain, and quite windy and nasty. Right at the top we saw four Jeeps. Three of them were driven by people we met earlier in the day, three “good old boys” from Louisiana right out of central casting: friendly, smiling, deep Southern accents, large and round (these boys didn't miss any fried meals, ever), and smelling of various variants of tobacco. One of their Jeeps was sitting dead with its hood open. A fourth Jeep, owned by an older gentleman trying to help them, sat nose-to-nose with the dead Jeep, and also had its hood up. I stopped and walked up to see if I could help. They were attempting a jump start, but it wasn't working; the dead Jeep's solenoid kicked in, but it wouldn't turn over. They'd been on the pass for an hour and a half trying to get that Jeep going again, and they were cold and wet.
When I asked if I could help, one of the Louisiana guys said, with a resigned look, “Only if you happen to have a set of really heavy-duty jumper cables.” Their theory was that the dead Jeep's battery was completely dead, and that their Good Samaritan's jumper cables just weren't up to the task. When I told them that in fact I did have a good set of jumper cables, there was a big look of relief. The dead Jeep's owner had pretty much given up on a jump start, and was resigned to leaving his Jeep on Cinnamon Pass for the night, while his buddies gave him a ride down. He figured he'd have to buy a new battery and bring it back up the next day to rescue his Jeep.
We got out my jumper cables, attached them, and vroom! His Jeep started right up. That was one happy good old boy :)
Being able to help out there put a big smile on my face, too. I got a great deal of satisfaction from seeing all the research and planning I did pay off. I actually spent several hours earlier this year researching jumper cables, and very carefully chose the ones I have. It was very pleasant seeing that work pay off so quickly!
Just after we started down from Cinnamon Pass, it started to rain hard – and we got hail. Lots of hail. Mostly it was pea-sized, but for a while it was more like garbanzo bean sized. At times it was hailing so hard that we had to shout to talk with each other. The dogs didn't react at all, but we were amazed at what we were seeing and hearing. There were “hail drifts” all over the mountain sides; we could see the white covering well over a mile away. We could see hail stones bouncing off the ground and plants all around us – and off the FJ's hood. There were large accumulations of hail in the roadside gullies, and the road itself was completely covered with it. Piles of hail accumulated under the FJ's windshield wipers. When we hit a steep downhill stretch of road, several cubic feet of hail slipped off the roof onto our hood – that had Debbie hooting with delight. The noise was amazingly loud. Mudpuddles had big splashes all across them from both hail and big raindrops. The intensity varied from moment to moment, but we were in the rain and hail for almost an hour, until we got down below Animas Forks. Both of us thought this was exciting, though Debbie was a bit worried about the road conditions (we never had any real problem at all). By the time we got to Eureka Gulch, it was all over – and the roads were dry; it hadn't even rained there. That storm was quite the local phenomenon!
The rest of the drive back to the cabin was very calm by comparison to the hailstorm experience. We saw a beautiful young buck down by Animas Creek, but otherwise it was just a pleasant and slow drive back to the cabin. We didn't get back until quite late (for us), about 8 pm, and we resolved to sleep in tomorrow morning...
|Along the road up Engineer Pass...|
|Closer to the top of Engineer Pass (almost at Mineral Springs)...|
|Elephants head flower, up close - see the pink elephants?|
|Two very happy dogs, bounding through a big meadow at top speed...|
|Chasing a ball through the tall grass...|
|Miki looking for that darned ball...|
|Canine competition - who will get to the ball first?|
|The photographer is holding the object of their desire - the ball!|
|Oh, oh - Race is in the lead!|
|This is so wrong, on so many levels - a begging marmot walking right up to the truck. Near the top of Engineer Pass...|
|At Engineer Pass...|
|Unusual color in this flower - all the other examples we've seen are pure white...|
|Iris near an old mine cabin site - planted?|
|Bumblebee on a seedum blossom...|
|Stretch of aspen forest on the way from Engineer Pass to Lake City...|
|Into the storm, on the way from Lake City up to Cinnamon Pass...|
|Hail, pea sized, in the road gully just below Cinnamon Pass...|
|Close-up of pea-sized hail. It's only dirty because it struck the ground; the hail on the truck was pure white...|
|Road covered with hail, which is also bouncing off the truck...|
|Drifts of hail along the road...|
|At Animas Forks, with hail all over the truck and mixed hail and rain pouring down. There was enough accumulated below the wipers to make several good “hail balls”...|