Hiking and Biking in the SLV

Hear ye, hear ye, one and all, it is still Fall, as evidenced by the color still available on several trails in the San Luis Valley and along rivers, streams, and hillsides. September's full dress of colors, and our festivals celebrating such, are over, but it does not mean the trails close! Colors dull down in the aspen trees, but there are still plenty of good reasons to get out and hike or bike. This year the aspens, due to a late dry summer, showed more oranges and reds beyond the golds they usually give us. It has been an excellent color season! What about now into late October and early November? If an early winter storm with ripping winds holds off, colors will remain for a month or more. A few renegade aspens and cottonwoods hold their brilliant yellows, so bright in the sunshine that they look as if they are drawing additional power by being directly plugged into the Earth.

What to do for fun in this third season of hiking and biking? By third season I mean the hiking seasons of May through August, and the beautiful and all too short color season of September are gone. For me, in the second weekend of October, I planned to go watch the 12 hours of Penitence Mountain bike race on Saturday the 8th and on Sunday go directly across the valley and head up the South Zapata Lake Trail.


The 12 hours of Penitence mountain bike race, a fundraiser for Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, was held in perfect conditions for mountain bike riding. The temperature was in the low 60s, but with a warm sun, made it a perfect day for outdoor adventures. October is usually dry, so the gravel road into the canyon kicks up white dust that has a distinctive smell and settles like talcum powder on the surface of vehicles. Mountain bikers in the race were riding laps on the difficult 17 mile loop. Volunteers, friends, support crews and spectators were hanging out, enjoying the casual intensity of the race. Fortunately, the riders are experienced so there were no medical emergencies this year beyond cramping, and inevitable fatigue.

Penitente Canyon is way over my bike riding ability I thought, as I left early before sunset, while catching a 'sun dog icebow' in the western sky. When a setting sun slides into thin layers of autumn clouds, ice crystals in the clouds will refract the light spectrum and give us a teasing spot of rainbow colors in the clouds. Driving away from the canyon going east, yields views of the distant Sangre de Cristo Mountains, while the agricultural fields are turning into their winter dress of dull yellows, tans and browns. I could see where my route would go the next day, deep into a gap in the highest peaks and hopefully make the lake...

SUNDAY - I drove Highway 150 toward the Great Sand Dunes. The road up to Zapata Falls is well marked and lets you know with a sign straight away, that this is a rough road. Yes, it is! It is a tailbone bouncer but once the rough and rocky rumble is over, the valley views, Zapata Falls, and the hike are worth it. The hike to South Zapata Lake sign says 4 miles from the waterfall and 2500 vertical feet, from 9400 to the lake level at 11,900. Do not take this trail lightly! There are steep sections, rough, rooty and rocky that make it seem much longer. And I am no stranger to danger or steep rough trails. I met about 20 people on the trail over the course of 4.5 hours. That's what I love about mountain trails. I met four twenty somethings, two guys worked for a communication satellite company, and the two girls were both civil engineers. They were there to get out of Denver for a few days. Another family of four were from Cape Girardeau MO. They were resting at an old miner's cabin which has a nice log bench beside it and provides great views of the San Luis Valley. I was able to explain the distant views and how the creeks flowing off the Sangre de Cristo Mountains 'worked,' begin flowing into the valley but then how they magically disappear underground. We could see San

Luis Lakes State Park and I explained the hydrogeological reason why there was water in the lakes this year.

I finally reached the intermountain basin, not far above tree line and met a couple at the lake lunching on a rock perch with their dog. We exchanged greetings and discussed how much more difficult and long the trail to the lake seemed. The surrounding peaks were lost in the clouds and snow flurries were flying in the air. Time to head down. On the way, ran into more people making their way to the lake, we exchanged information about trail conditions and by now, it began to sleet and rain. The bad thing was that the rocks and roots became slippery.

The good things were the way the moisture brings out the smell of the grasses and the beds of still golden, yet turning gray aspen leaves, as they decompose to make future soils for more plants to survive the high mountain harshness. A steady rain continued and I got pretty wet and chilled on the way down. So, since I was mostly wet anyway, when reached the waterfall trail, I waded through Zapata Creek to get back into the cave where the water fall comes shooting off a rocky wall like a fire hydrant out of control, the sound of which is as deafening as a water fall a hundred times its size! Reminded me of the Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, locked somewhere in distant memory. With numb wet feet, my mid fall weekend of adventure was over as soon as I got back down the three mile bumpety bump of the road. Glad I was to have dry shoes and socks in the car.

NOTE - For Zapata Falls - the trail is a 1/2 mile up a steep rocky grade. To see the falls requires getting your feet wet. I watched several people try, while I was wading through the water, to keep their shoes or hiking boots dry. The last 30 feet is impossible to get to the close up view of the water gushing off the rocky shelf. SUGGESTION - wear shoes that you can get soaked to reach the falls. Worth the view. You will also experience painful numbing of toes and feet as the water is barely above freezing. Enjoy!

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