A Winter Playground in the San Luis Valley
Wolf Creek Pass resides on the west side of the San Luis Valley and sits in a winter storm track that in big snow years, because of geography, and being on a ridge at 12,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains, storms will spank the terrain with feet of snow, high winds, and cold. In the aftermath, Mother Nature has placed a soft playground upon which to use our human made toys to go outside and play. At the Wolf Creek Ski Resort, this means wonderful downhill and Nordic skiing.
Meanwhile, as the crows and occasional drones fly, in not too many air miles to the south, are two more passes, La Manga and Cumbres. They are on the same ridge, a bit lowe rin altitude than Wolf Creek but they are blessed with lots of snow also. The terrain does not lend itself to downhill skiing but these passes are both big time playgrounds. On Saturday January 2nd of this year a nice sunny day greeted me as I made my way back from northern New Mexico. At the top of Cumbres Pass, where the Cumbres and Toltec train stops in the summer, there are parking areas and a forest service access road heading west from Highway 17 which also has a lot of parking. Packed! Trucks and trailers, SUVs, and plenty of cars lined the lots and the highway. Family day. Saucers and other snow sliding toys, along with the snowmobilers, made up the crowds. In the several miles between passes, every place to park was occupied. Expansive meadows of treeless terrain, forest service roads, and trails into the pine and aspen trees create many miles of adventure for the snowmobile crowd. Big time fun to start out 2016 in the southern San Juans.
I needed to get back north but there was an afternoon trail run in my future. Several miles north of the town of Villa Grove, as Highway 17 heads toward Poncha Pass, I was looking for open access to the National Forest. And there it was, one of those magical brown signs indicating National Forest Service access. Peterson Creek Road NN56 was open to all forms of recreation. All I needed were my running shoes and warm clothes as the temperature was fluctuating in the mid-teens. I drove a mile up the road and could tell when the recent snowstorm had come through, the northwest winds were ripping across the landscape, a sand dune and snow drift sculpting kind of wind. This day however, the air was still and the sun was out.
Drove barely over a mile to a spot where the plowed road ended and it was time to take to the snowy trail part of the road. Snowmobilers had been on the trail which usually indicates it will be packed down enough to allow for running instead of using my snowshoes that do reside in my trunk all winter. I have adopted an attitude that when it comes to trails, even in winter, no matter the depth of the snow, there are no excuses. Proper equipment in the car eliminates ever using an excuse. But my other attitude when it comes to tromping on trails in any conditions no matter what, is that I get to do this, I don't have to do this. My mindset can turn a cold winter day into my next little adventurous event. And I have never had a disappointing experience or felt better than after a jaunt through one of our national forests. NOTE – lightning in the summer and avalanche danger in the winter are the two acceptable excuses.
Mountains, though often close to highways, look quite two dimensional. It is the way the human mind sees them against the backdrop of a valley and the sky, like the way we see two dimensional paintings or photos hanging in a gallery. But I discover always, like people, there is much more depth to a creek valley going into the mountains because there simply has to be. The creek has to start somewhere and it is usually high up a mountain valley, miles from the trailhead!
On this day I am blessed with cool air, warm sun and solitude. Over the course of my four miles I see no one but take in everything, the sunlight streaming through the trees and casting dark shadows. Where the sun hits the snow, flecks of silver and gold are all over the surface and I would be richer than the recent lottery winners if I could pick them all up! But, they are like the pot o'gold at the end of the rainbow, proving ever elusive. Heck, I'd never be able to carry all that precious metal back to my car anyway.
Time, not lack of desire to go on, makes me turn around and continue on a schedule to be somewhere. But, this unknown road to me a short time before, has assured me that I would be welcomed back to listen to the breezes whisper through the pines and listen to the cool waters of Peterson Creek gurgle under the ice on its way to disappearing somewhere underground before it even reaches the valley floor a few hundred feet below. What a nice way to spend a short winter day in the San Luis Valley. Ahh, January, a dark and cold month but the days are getting longer as we are now past the winter solstice and the sun is 'crawling' back toward our hemisphere...