While Sandy was taking her quilting class I would have the day free to go hiking. I had never been to South Fork before, nor had I done any hiking or climbing in the eastern San Juans. A lot of the area is protected in the Wenimuche Wilderness. At nearly half a million acres, it's the largest wilderness in Colorado. So I was anxious to explore the area.
There were some practical problems though. First, since the Wenimuche is so large a lot of the hikes are quite long and require two or more days to complete. I wasn't set up for backpacking. Second, a lot of the trailheads had fairly long approaches on low grade roads, which took quite a bit of time or even required 4WD. Since I had to drop Sandy off at her class and (hopefully) be back about when she was done, I wouldn't have time to do a lot of driving to and from the trailhead. Fortunately I did find one area, near Wolf Creek Pass on US highway 160, where the trailheads for several hikes were reasonably accessible from South Fork.
The hike that I picked was the Hunter Lake Loop. It was only four miles and less than a thousand feet of elevation gain. Pretty mild stuff, but it could easily be extended to reach the Weminuche High Line Trail and even beyond that to the top of Table Mountain. Although it's only 12,688 feet high, nowhere near a fourteener, I can never resist doing a summit when I have the chance. So I had a lot of options depending on the time, weather and how I felt.
Since the hotel was a mile away from where Sandy had her class, I had to wait till I could drop her off. When we got to the church at 9am, there was no one there and it wasn't even open. A quick call and Sandy found out that the person wouldn't even be there to open up until 9:30 and the class wouldn't start till 10. I guess the local quilt guild doesn't have a lot of early risers. I stayed with Sandy for a while, but at 9:30 she finally convinced me that I could leave since someone would be there any minute.
I definitely had a late start. It didn't help either when I drove past my turnoff from US 160. No problem. I'll just turn around as soon as I find a straight section of road. It will only cost me two minutes. But just then I saw a flagman waving frantically at me to move faster just as I was approaching a tunnel. When I came out on the other side I realized that I had joined the very back of a line of traffic going through a construction zone behind a pilot car. Great! When I was finally through the construction and got turned around, I had to wait for fifteen minutes to get back through going the other way. I could see that I was not destined to be on the trail early today.
It was another ten miles on a good dirt road to reach the trailhead. Along the way I passed the Big Meadows Reservoir. It was a nice lake set in a large bowl. There were lots of cars parked there and people were fishing and picnicing and boating. But the forest all around was completely dead. What should have been a really pretty spot was actually kind of depressing. The drive the rest of the way to the trailhead was mostly through dead forest too.
Although I was getting a late start there was only one truck at the trailhead. Clearly I wouldn't have to fight crowds on the trail.
The trail was easy at the start, in fact it was downhill. I didn't have to go far before I reached Hunter Lake after only a mile of easy hiking. From the lake I could see Table Mountain, and could understand how it got it's name. It wasn't so much a mountain as a high ridge/plateau, separated from the level of the lake by a steep escarpment. There was a slight bump that was probably the highest point but it was hard to tell. Not exactly one of the worlds great summits, but it would still be a good viewpoint so I resolved to get to the top if the weather held. There was substantial cloud buildup already so it wasn't a sure thing. Being in a lightning storm on a high, empty plateau would not be a good idea.
At the lake I ran into a lady, who was probably from the truck parked at the trailhead. She said that she and her husband were fishing at the lake, so they didn't intend to go any further. After I left the lake, I didn't see anyone else for the rest of the hike. Colorado trails are usually pretty crowded, especially one as easy to reach as this one. It was a nice surprise to have the mountains all to myself for the day.
After descending gradually ever since leaving the trailhead, I reached the wilderness boundardy at one and a quarter miles. Now the switchbacks started and the trail climbed almost a thousand feet in the next mile. Then I was up on the high plateau. Pretty soon the trail disappeared and I was just walking through grassy alpine tundra from rock cairn to rock cairn. Finally even the cairns disappeared, but it was pretty obvious where to go. It was easy walking to the highest bump on the ridge that I had seen from below at the lake.
I was pretty sure that I was at the highest point. It says something about how steep Table Mountain is(n't) when it is hard to tell exactly where the top really is. But the view was great, although I could see more threatening weather coming in from the north. It looked like rain and not thunder and lightning, so I decided to keep going to the next high point, just to be sure I had reached the highest one. When I got there, sure enough, the other point had indeed been the summit. But now I could see a few rain showers close by and getting closer so it was time to hustle down.
I didn't make it. Just as I reached the top of the steep descending section of the trail, I felt raindrops and the wind really picked up. It wasn't bad though. By the time I got my rain shell out of my pack and put it on, it was less than five minutes before the rain stopped. I wore my shell for a little longer as the wind was really blowing on the high ridge. As soon as I dropped down into the (dead) trees I was out of the wind and the hike was pleasant again.
Going down I took time to enjoy the wildflowers again. There was a lot of Indian Paintbrush on the upper plateau. The switchback area had Blue Columbine along the trail, and I even found one group of White Columbine, which seems to be much rarer. Lower down, back in the burn area, there was a lot of Fireweed and lots and lots of a yellow flower that I couldn't identify. At one point I stopped and sat on a rock for a rest, right in the middle of a sea of flowers. The pleasant surprise was that for some reason, there were no bugs on this hike. I don't know if it was the area, or the weather, or what. After the swarms of bugs that we had encountered in the latter stages of the Ice Lake hike, I thought my late start would mean that I was harrassed the entire way by flies. Instead the hike turned out to be calm and peaceful the whole way. Well, except for those few minutes when the rain shower came through and the wind was trying to blow me off the ridge.
I managed to drive back to the hotel without missing any turns this time and figured that I had just enough time to clean up before I had to go pick up Sandy. But a few minutes later she showed up. Her class had ended a little bit early and one of the other students in her class had given her a ride to the hotel. So our timing worked out just about perfectly.
Sandy had enjoyed her first day of class. Since she had cut her fabric beforehand she made a lot of progress on sewing her quilt. She was also able to take advantage of the instructors presence to ask questions about technnique because she was actually working on her quilt. She said that most of the others in the class hadn't prepared so they spent most of the day just cutting their fabric. Sandy is always organized though, even when she is doing her hobby.
I had a good day too. I had enjoyed my hike, although it was a nice hike, not a spectacular one. That was my assessment of the eastern San Juans too. Nice hiking, with expansinve views, and a large wilderness area. But there was no spectacular alpine scenery and the dead forests were sad. I wouldn't be anxious to go back to do more hikes there when I have other mountain areas that I like better.
That's pretty much my summary of the Colorado mountains, although local hikers and climbers are quite chauvinistic about them. Years ago, a colleague of mine who worked at HP in Ft. Collins joked that one day people from Colorado would blow the top off of Mt. Whitney. Then the highest mountain in the continental US would be in Colorado, where it should be, instead of California. But I am not that big a fan. I do enjoy the challenge of climbing fourteeners and there are some spectacular mountains in the Sneffels Range near Ouray. But overall I thing the California Sierras or the Washington Cascades or Canadian Rockies are more beautiful. I even prefer my own home mountains, the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, to the Colorado Rockies. I don't say that too loudly when I am in Colorado though.
The next day the trip was starting to wind down. The weather forecast showed a high probability of afternoon showers. That really restricted my already limited hiking options. Sandy suggested that if she left class a little early, we could start back home instead of spending another night in South Fork. I thought it was a good idea so the next morning we packed the car and checked out of our hotel before I dropped her off at class.
I didn't do much that day. I drove over to Creede to look around town. At least they had some shops to check out, unlike South Fork. After lunch I spent the afternoon at Sandy's class. When she reached a good break point on her quilt around two in the afternoon we packed up her sewing stuff and started home. We were able to drive about half way back, stopping in Price, Utah overnight. That made for an easy drive back the next day and we got home in the middle of the afternoon.
Abby was excited to see us and we were glad to see her. She had a good week too, the first long trip that she stayed with our new dogsitter Janet. Abby even seemed to have made good friends with Janet's dog, a Chiweenie named Toby.
Overall it was a fun trip. Sandy had a really good class and is going to pursue her Judy Niemeyer designs and try to become a certified instructor. We got in some good hikes. The wildflowers were especially spectacular. And we got to explore some new mountain territory.