Guest writer, Bill Veazie, sends us this Mountain Dispatch from deep inside the Gunnison National Forest’s, West Elk Wilderness.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget there is another Colorado besides the one seen on the Front Range – a rugged and remote Colorado that hasn’t changed despite the rest of the state’s booming population. Places where the Wild in Wilderness is emphasized rather than a subtle secondary attribute.
I was chained to a desk job for months on end before I found a break in the schedule. I knew I needed to spend time in a place where it was still wild, where there is no protective roof over my head and where the only light I would find would be supplied by the sun. When I approached a friend of mine, with my camping plans, he invited me on a mid-summer pack trip he was also planning. John founded Llamas Colorado, a llama raising operation based out of Greenwood Village, Colorado. John regularly uses his llamas for adventures when he heads into the high country. I thought, why not allow a llama or two to assist or even carry stuff I might otherwise not usually take in the backcountry (like chairs and a solar camp shower)? Why not forego the 40 pound backpack? Needless to say, I didn’t need any more convincing. So we were off when the time came – llamas and all.
Even the drive was invigorating. After crossing the Blue Mesa Reservoir dam, you turn north on Forest Service Road 721. While the first six miles are well-graded, the last few are definitely rough and rocky, passable only by 4WD. By the time you reach the Soap Creek Trailhead (#443) you are far removed from the madding crowds and pretty much everything else. I was in the backcountry and I hadn’t yet taken a step (give yourself a couple of hours just to get to the trailhead from highway 92).
The trail starts with an immediate challenge – crossing Soap Creek. It was knee-high and swift-flowing in late July. No alternative – we were faced with immediate immersion. Llamas strode through it with ease (and afterwards, they weren’t tackling the trail in spongy, sloshing footwear – good thing I’d packed camp shoes.)
It was a wet year – currant, water hemlock and other tall shrub species choked the trail. Having embarked in late afternoon – the heavens opened while scarcely half a mile in; this reporter was soon as wet as if he’d had breast-stroked that initial crossing. The llamas were remarkably calm as we traversed mixed open montane and aspen zones, lightning flashing while we unavoidably brushed against chest-high, drenched shrubs and grasses. Let he who has rain gear, hear.
It was more like swimming than hiking. Soon enough though, we reached a fork in the trail (not marked, trail 535 to the east); John takes the path along the river (trail 443) to scout for campsites while one of the guys holds his llama; likewise, I scout trail 535 which ascends to a meadow. We reconvene; take the upper fork (535) and mercifully, at the far edge of the meadow we discover an established campsite with fire ring, tent sites and cover in the douglas fir.
From there, our trip improved as everything dried out over the coming days. It’s a wild country, and infrequently visited. The trout were hitting everything in sight and there were fresh bear tracks along Soap Creek which by now was a willow-overgrown labyrinth featuring muddy sub-channels. Despite the entanglements, it was worth invading in pursuit of voracious brookies and rainbows.
Trail 443 proved worthy of one day’s hike further up Soap Creek – it crosses a couple miles beyond the trail 442 fork, a point at which a campsite seems possible and where the trout are also welcoming. Trail 553 ascends along East Soap Creek into a higher, maybe slightly drier basin – pretty and worth a side trip.
The only downside to filing a trip report is that a little-known slice of wilderness may be made slightly more public. Soap Creek is a beautiful, remote drainage. So – keep it secret among your closest friends. “In wildness is the preservation of the world” – let’s hope Soap Creek stays wild forever.
Mountain Dispatch is a regular column for guest writers to send stories of their adventures and explorations from all across the West.