Not having truly camped overnight away from the car and comforts of a state park, I decided to try my hand at backpacking in the Colorado backcountry with a well-seasoned outdoorsman and fellow WG’06 classmate of mine. We met up in Denver on July 5th before picking up another friend at the airport to round out our crew at 4. We then headed west on I-70 over to Grand Junction and down Hwy 50 to our destination of Ridgway State Park.
Ridgway is touted as one of Colorado’s nicer state parks and it lived up to that reputation. The facilities were quite clean and it even had a compost toilet near the walk-in tent camping area. There were also wheel-barrow-type carts available for loading and pushing items up to the camping area. They would have worked well had they not been filled with water (a few holes drilled in the bottom would remedy this?). Anyhow, the night at Ridgway was great; we should have known since a full double rainbow greeted us at the entrance.
Double rainbow at Ridgway State Park
From Ridgway, we headed further south through Silverton and to the trailhead of our first (and last for me!) high country adventure in the Weminuche Wilderness. The Highland Mary Lakes were our destination and the trailhead was a bit difficult to find based on directions from the book we were using. It turns out that San Juan County Road 110 is a bit tricky. Had we paid closer attention to the roads, the book turned out to be more accurate than we originally expected. Just before the trailhead in the Cunningham Gulch, our progress in the truck was interrupted by many 18-wheelers loaded with sheep. Apparently the farmers let the sheep out in the summer to feed on the grass and pick them up again in the fall. The sheep and the herders hiked directly up the face of one of the mountains in the gulch and it was quite a sight!
We started the Highland Mary Lakes loop hike around 3:30 in the afternoon. The first part of the trail was definitely less forgiving than the second day. Parts of it were actually pretty scary, with the crawl across the boulder field just before reaching the first lake topping my list. With a constant misting rain, the rocks were very slippery and it didn’t help encourage a positive frame of mind. Nevertheless, about 3.5 hours after starting, we reached around 12,000 ft and set up camp.
Camping at first of Highland Mary Lakes
We started back hiking in the morning around 10:30 after a decent night’s rest. Had the rainfly stake not blown loose and allowed my sleeping pad to become partially saturated with water, the night would have been more restful :-) Anyhow, the hike back down the mountain was much less intense than going up. The terrain was significantly less challenging, though it was damp, boggy, and muddy on most of the trail. The wildflowers and views were fantastic, even if it was very foggy in the higher elevations.
Taking a break at a Highland Mary Lake
Highland Mary Lakes wildflower
Stream on the descent
It felt nice to be back at our vehicles in Cunningham Gulch and I immediately ripped off my boots and let my feet dry out in a pair of flip flops. We headed back to Silverton and some rest and relaxation at the Triangle Motel.
After the wilderness (mis)adventure, we decided it might be a good idea to take things easy for a bit and headed over to Mesa Verde National Park, site of the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. We arrived at the park somewhat later in the day after setting up camp at Mancos State Park. However, we had just enough time to catch the Cliff Palace tour, guided by Ranger Donal Lindsey, who gave a fantastic overview of the site and its history.
While driving through the park, we spotted several chimpmunks and even a couple of elk right near the park road. It’s a shame that so much of this park has been burned by wildfires in recent years. The ranger said it would take over 400 years for the forest to recover.
Old tree at a Mesa Verde N.P. scenic overlook
After Mesa Verde and Macos State Park, we headed further west to stop by the Grand Canyon en route to Las Vegas. The other half of the crew met a friend in Durango for more backcountry adventures. Having had enough of that for a while, a couple of days in Vegas were much enjoyed. But it seemed time to get back home so a 19.5 hour drive (got to love the 75 mph speed limit on I-40 through Arizona and New Mexico) straight back to Texas capped off the trip. Oh, I did make a quick stop by Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona.
Rock formation in Arizona
More interesting rocks
At Meteor Crater
A couple of fantastic restaurants along the way:
- Millwood Junction in Mancos, Colorado
- Himalayan Cuisine on Main Ave in Durango, Colorado