I had a rough third night in Santa Fe but still managed to grab a continental breakfast at the hotel and hit the road by eight o’clock. I drove north towards Pagosa Springs, originally intending to stop at Heron Lake and see if the Rio Chama trail from there to El Vado Lake was open.
I passed the gorgeous bluffs near Ghost Ranch, regretting that its trails are closed under the fire threat. And then only 1.5 miles from the turnoff for the lakes, I was stopped by a flag man and had to wait 10 minutes for a pilot truck to guide me and the long line of cars built up behind me through several miles of resurfacing. By then I’d lost my appetite for an uncertain hike and wanted a cooler hike at a higher altitude in an open forest, one which was guaranteed to pay off.
So I drove on, noting the noticeable shift in the forest as I entered Colorado. My route led me to Chama and I scoped out the depot where I’ll board the Cumbres and Toltec train on Thursday morning. What a contrast to Durango! The downtrodden burg had nothing to offer, so I drove on into beautiful Pagosa Springs for lunch and to check that this stretch of highway wasn’t under construction. It wasn’t, and at the restaurant I researched trails on my iPad and recalled that last summer I had considered a hike above 9,000 feet of altitude that involved Opal Lake.
Afternoon is no time to be solo hiking at higher elevations because the mountains invoke thunderstorms. But I found I could just hike a mile in to Opal Lake and then back out, elevating from about 8,750 feet of altitude at the trailhead to about 9,250 feet at the lake. So I retraced my drive south eight miles and turned eastward into the San Juan Forest, taking gravel roads 13.5 miles in and up to the trailhead.
I saw what I’ll call a prairie chicken along the road, and the sky still looked bright and sunny, with pretty aspens alongside the road. There were several vehicles, including a horse trailer, at the trailhead. I signed in at the register and noted past visitors had carved many a tree. The trail began climbing steadily and I was grateful for my trekking poles. It had been a month since I’d done a serious hike and the altitude was taking its toll. I soon met two ladies riding their horses back to the trailhead.
The trail was heavily forested, only passing one large rock outcropping near the first of several fords of White Creek. (Why isn’t it called Rito Blanco? That sounds better.) The trail had not been very pretty, but then I hit a large grove of aspens. Oh yes, that’s nicer, and I could tell some others had loved it 15 years ago.
The trail would feature oodles of wildflowers from here on to the lake. I did not bring my wildflower ID guide with me and I’m tired, so I’ll give them Latin names based on their color – Linneaus be crucified. There was an Opalus canarius and some wilting Opalus xanthinus near a fallen log.
The sky was darkening, with the trail headed toward Storm Mountain. Okay, it’s really one of the 11,700 foot peaks in the Chalk Mountains, and I’m the only one who has the imagination to call it Storm Mountain. But to heck with the clouds, the lake couldn’t be much farther. I hit a junction with Fish Creek Trail, which I would unexpectedly return on awhile later.
The sides of the trail were lined with the same tall plants I’d seen in bloom at Williams Creek last year – let’s call them Florealbo, although a lot of searching online leads me to believe it is Veratrum californicum, variously known as the corn lily, false hellebore, and “skunk cabbage.”
Dark clouds were building over nearby Flattop Mountain, which peaks out at 11,400 feet. Here and there a gap between the Florealbo (okay, corn lilies) I caught colorful glimpses of what I think of as foxglove, but is really Penstemon hallii, and that name I did not make up. I have swcoloradowildflowers.com to thank for that identification. I forded the creek again and soon was told Opal Lake was only 0.1 mile away on a side trail. I’d make it before the weather turned on me!
The trail was lined with wildflowers with busy bees. The only time the insect life bothered me was when I stopped to take a photograph. So yes, they were driving me crazy. Why I hadn’t sprayed down with Cutter is a mystery to me too.
The trail opened out on a large meadow and I caught a glimpse of the lake. Flowers were strewn before Flattop Mountain to appease it. And then I was on the shore of Opal Lake, with Flattop and its taller friend in the background. At one side a stream was pouring down into the lake, and I shot a video of its flow.
Some fishermen came up behind me, so I fled down a perimeter trail, startling a family of ducks into motion. The lake looked pretty good from the new angle, and it nicely reflected the building clouds. Oh – I’d better get moving.
But I still stopped for a red burst flower, er, Cheiri. Then the perimeter trail I’d been following hit another creek area and petered out. I bushwhacked quite a bit, trying to complete the loop on animal trails which left me with tiny cuts on my legs and several bites (from insects, not the trail blazers, and I saw three snakes slithering, but not biting, together). The animal trails got too tight, so I had to backtrack. I then found a narrow grassy trail which headed back toward the trailhead, parallel to the Opal Lake Trail. That would do, and I was reassured by tree graffiti that this trail really led somewhere. It eventually popped out at the junction I’d seen earlier – I’d been on a less travelled portion of the Fish Creek Trail.
By now faint distant thunder was getting louder and I saw a flash of lightning. Time to scramble! I caught up with another couple who were high-tailing it toward their car. We laughed as we scrambled along, the man asking if my trekking poles had shock absorbers as we bounced down the rough trail. With my poles giving me two more legs, I felt like an enraged bull heading down a hillside toward his bouncing red shirt.
A fine rain began falling, just enough to cool us off without soaking us. We ran into a group of hikers headed uphill toward the lake, but they were all outfitted with ponchos. If I were them, I’d want a lightning rod to boot, although I’d only seen that one flash. We were soon back at our cars, celebrating our timing since just then the rain started to pick up.
As I descended on the gravel roads, the rain slackened and disappeared, as I’ve noticed before: Pagosa Springs can be bright and sunny while it rains in the mountains a few miles away. As I crossed a bridge, I spotted a deer crossing the Rio Blanco.
I drove back into town and checked into my hotel. I’m staying up on the flat land west of town this time, in a hotel with good room WiFi. And the view from the window is pretty good even though it looks out on the highway. After a shower and change of clothes I headed to JJ’s Riverwalk Restaurant & Pub to again enjoy a tremendous prime rib while tourists fished or floated by on their tubes in the shallow river. A cute black cat walked up along the riverwalk and tried to beg scraps from the diners, clearly on the lookout for wait staff who’d kick her out.
Thoroughly stuffed, I walked along the riverwalk and discovered a momma cat and her kittens hiding in the shore brush. There was still some daylight left, so I decided to go see the springs area, which I’d only given a cursory look last summer. I drove downtown and located the public spring by the road feeding down into the San Juan River. The water comes out too hot for bathing, but the hotels mix it to get different pools for soaking. You can’t enjoy heaven without hell, so it was fitting that the attractive springs area had frequent whiffs of sulphurous fumes from the mineral springs.
I had fun watching folks try to navigate the river in their tubes and shot a video of their exploits.
I also liked the lawn chess set at one hotel. Having circumnavigated the springs area, I crossed the San Juan, took a last look at the springs area, and drove to my hotel beneath the sheltering sky.
It is raining as I wrap up this post. Tomorrow I plan to rise early and drive north out to the Williams Creek canyon off the Piedra River to go farther along a hike I had to abandon early last year due to storms. And yes, there’s a 40 percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms tomorrow, so I’ve got to get around, drive 40 minutes out to the trail, and do as much of it as I can in the morning.
Click here for a slideshow of this day hike