Sometimes I feel like I am the low man on the totem pole on the SnoWest SnowTest staff. So, when I was asked by SnoWest editor Lane Lindstrom to cover a travel feature in my home state of Colorado, my first thought was, "What's up with that? Nobody wants to cover this?"
Distance and prior obligations were the excuses for everyone from the SnoWest office in Idaho. Turns out those low elevation city boys needed a real mountain man to do this job because this was by no means the typical travel feature.
It turns out our gig to the mountains would strike the fancy of a very select group of enthusiasts-those looking for a real getaway to some high elevation extreme riding.
Our destination was an area south and west of Creede, CO, which is tucked away in the southern part of Colorado.
This was not a trip to an area with a three- or four-star hotel with live music in the lounge at night along with groomed tails in all directions. First off, the only groomed trail in this neighborhood is the six-plus miles from the Rio Grande Reservoir parking area into the Lost Trail Guest Ranch. The ranch is a real escape from reality in every sense of the term.
With its location along the Rio Grande River amidst the San Juan Mountains of the Colorado Rockies, our temporary residence didn't have cabled electricity, meaning the ranch runs on solar and/or generated power; no TVs or telephones, which went right along with non-existent cell or radio service. Best have your business done before coming into this joint. After a great home-cooked supper, our night life consisted of sitting around and consuming some frosty beverages along with some war stories and shop talk. The live music was provided compliments of the local coyotes howlin' in the not-so-far distance.
If you plan to ride this area of San Juans, which sits north of the Weminuche Wilderness along the Continental Divide toward Spring Creek Pass, a high altitude setup for you and your pony is a must. Our trek through this area averaged an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet, with a couple of ridge crossings putting us at nearly 13,000 feet.
The morning of Day 2 we were gifted with crystal clear skies. The sunshine had my racing and riding buddy of 25 years, Ken Huismann, and myself, all pumped up for Lost Trail Ranch proprietor Bob Getz to show us around his backyard and huge playground. Getz is the third generation on this ranch and knows these mountains like no one else, exploring them year-round.
We rode out the front gate of the ranch and jumped on the Stony Pass Road that skirts along the north edge of the ranch property heading up the Rio Grande River, riding through Brewster Park, under Bandit Rock and over Timber Hill. This seven-mile jaunt took us to the Confluence, the beginning of the Rio Grande, It's also the end of a packed snowmobile trail that was established due to a lynx study going on in this area.
The Confluence is like the front entrance to snowmobile heaven. The existing trail ended and the 12 to 18 inches of pristine powder lying in wide open creek drainages that are aiming toward the high country began.
From here we headed up Bear Creek, carving through the virgin powder while trying not to lose site of the fact that we were on a mission to see as much as possible today. About two-thirds of the way up this valley we stopped just above the site of Bear Town, an abandoned mining town that boasted of nearly 3,000 people in the late 1800s.
All of our sleds had fallen off of peak rpm so Kenny insisted that we squeeze the last little bit of high-altitude tuning out of our rides, which did help. I knew I brought him along for something more than just a good time.
We fired up, then jumped the creek and climbed on up to timberline at Kite Lake and from there slabbed up a long sidehill bench to the Continental Divide near Hunchback Pass, sitting at an elevation of just less than 12,500 feet. The view from up here is awe-inspiring-with long distance vistas to the north, east and south and 13,000-foot-plus peaks to the west.
It was necessary for us to backtrack out of Bear Creek to get to Stony Pass without getting into a small triangle of the Weminuche Wilderness between the two. This was the only time today that we would look at our own tracks, let alone anyone else's, till we were back within five miles of the ranch. Once out of Bear Creek we were back on the basic route of the wagon/stage trail to Stony Pass. Once we climbed out of the canyon of lower Deep Creek and past the foot of Sheep Mountain, it was wall-to-wall white stuff. All of us played indirect lines of roller and knob busting on up to Stony Pass and then rode through the pass and over the Divide, finally looking down country in the general direction of Howardsville and Silverton.
After Kenny put some tracks on the west face of Canby Mountain, we left Stony Pass and headed east toward the West Fork of Pole Creek. We had a steep, high ridge between us and the West Fork that dealt us some grief getting everybody over it. Thankfully, we were able to continue on without a wreck as a big bird of prey was already circling above, waiting for some fresh meat.
About halfway down the West Fork we stopped in a little pocket against the trees to take a lunch break out of a stiff breeze. Here were acre upon acre of high mountain meadows just begging for some tracks, so after lunch we obliged on our way to the bottom of the West Fork.
Divided We Ride
Here we went back to the north up Pole Creek toward the Divide. This section of Pole Creek was challenging as we had to sidehill the canyon while we were gaining altitude like quick. Once we worked our way out of the lower canyon, the San Juans opened into a testosterone paradise. There is one huge draw or bowl after another that will test the baddest of mountain mashers and jockies with the biggest of cajones. We experienced only a fraction of this playground that included upper Pole Creek, across the Divide into Cataract Lake, back across the Divide into upper Lost Trail Creek and paralleled the Divide up to the Carson Mining District.
The mining district added some extra flavor to our big adventure as riding around the old buildings and tailings piles on the wind-scoured hillsides was way cool, especially at an elevation of at least 12,000 feet. All I have to say is that those folks were wanting those precious minerals in a bad, bad way.
Once again we climbed up the Divide, this time to look down into Wagner Gulch, where just below the timberline sits the ghost mining town of Carson, yet another unique site with many old buildings still standing.
Getz told us the bottom of Wagner Gulch is as close as we would come to a county road and the nearest trail system starts at Spring Creek Pass. The Lake City snowmobile club maintains the system west of the Silver Thread Highway and the Creede club the east side.
After we looked about the Carson Mining District, we traversed one more high ridge in the direction of Spring Creek Divide, then turned south and boondocked our way off of the mountain. After all, we had been in the wide open high country with picturesque views most of the day; it was time for some pick-your-way-through-the-forest stuff. We worked our way down into the North Clear Creek meadows and then to the Lost Trail Creek canyon for the last two miles into the ranch.
Have Daylight, Will Ride
Even though clouds were building in the skies, there were still a couple of hours before dark. So the general consensus was to refuel and make a loop out and across the Finger Mesa, as this was the last area that Getz really wanted us to see. It also meant we would have tomorrow as an open play day.
This time we left the ranch in the opposite direction, down the trail back toward the parking area. After approximately four miles, Getz hooked a left just past Horse Thief Pasture and found an old trail that switchbacked its way up the south side of Finger Mesa, ending up at Stage Station Flat. From there we cut our way on up to Lost Lakes and tracked up some big meadows around the lakes. Then we boondocked up to the top of the mesa. At an elevation of more than 12,200 feet, the views from the top of the Mesa are breathtaking in all directions. And if your breath is hard to grab then ease over to the edge of the Mesa on the westernmost half-these cliffs will steal it away. After a bit of playing around on top, we bashed our way through the trees off the north side of Finger Mesa. This brought us into the North Clear Creek meadows for the same final leg back to the ranch just before sunset.
After a long day and just more than 100 miles, Getz had shared his favorite places to ride with us. I must mention that these mountains are rich with stage coach and mining history, making this ride interesting right along with incredible. The country that we cruised through in one day would take a month of Sundays and an endless supply of gas to explore.
The morning of Day 3 was overcast with snowfall. This was good for the area as it had been about 12 days since a substantial storm. This was bad for us as the weather put a kibosh to our day of play plan. Good thing we finished our work yesterday. We definitely will take a snow check for another day of riding around Lost Trail Guest Ranch.
The Lost Trail Guest Ranch is a quaint, yet accommodating recreation destination of 160 acres that sits at a secluded elevation of just less than 10,000 feet, 18 miles up U.S. Forest Service Road 520. USFS 520 branches off of Highway 149 (also known as the Silver Thread Highway) approximately 40 miles above Creede, CO. The ranch is a third generation family operation that epitomizes the term "getaway." The atmosphere is a nice blend of rustic and modern among the four different-sized cabins with solar and/or generator power along with propane and/or wood heat.
So, the next time the boys at the SnoWest office suggest we head south to the Creede area, we won't even hesitate to say yes. This little piece of snowmobile paradise is too good to pass up.