Last summer, on my first visit to Pagosa Springs, I climbed up the hill on one end of the Piedra River Trail (forest service trail 596) to discover the beautiful Williams Creek canyon. But at the time I did not have time to follow the trail very far on south. I was determined today to rectify that, and I’m sure glad I did.
It turns out the hill I climbed is called Ice Cave Ridge because ice remains in the fissures atop it into early summer. It separates the Piedra River from the entry into it by Williams Creek. I had no trail map to guide me, but I knew it was supposed to somehow descend to follow the Piedra River southwest for several miles.
I wanted to head out as early as practical to avoid any afternoon thunderstorms, so I got up at 6, had a hot breakfast at the hotel when it was ready at 6:30, and left at 6:45 to drive along the Piedra Road and arrive at the Piedra River at 7:20. It was a wonderfully chilly 55 degrees as I pulled up at an overlook lot and strode across to look into the chasm the Piedra River cuts through the countryside. This close to dawn the canyon was a dark gash and I resolved to revisit it at noon, but that turned out not to be necessary since I’d eventually discover the high trail connected to run back through here.
I took a close-up of some flowers, including Penstemon hallii, beside the trail and drove a bit farther along Piedra Road to the trailhead parking lot, which was empty. It would fill up with cars by the time I returned in the early afternoon. I set out on what would be an eight mile hike, the morning sky forming my silhouette to the west. The trail forked and, as I did last year, I took the right fork to climb upward. I would return on the left fork five hours later.
Soon I was climbing from the starting altitude of 7,700 feet to 8,000 feet at the crest of Ice Cave Ridge. The familiar fissures were present, including one in the middle of the trail trying to swallow a log. I peeked in the crack, but there was no ice, of course.
Reaching the overlook of Williams Creek canyon, as expected the shadow of Ice Cave Ridge swept far out into the view. But I got a sunny shot of this last summer, so no worries. In the far distance I could see the Piedra River where I would be hiking a few hours later.
But first I had to find my way down. I backtracked to the side trail I’d followed for a bit last year. It still had several felled trees across it and led me on to the south edge of the ridge where I could see the Piedra River and the adjacent Trail Ridge with its exposed vertical cliff edges. I shot a panorama and then wondered how in the world to descend to the river.
The trail had simply petered out. I tracked back and forth, trying to see where it continued, but could not find anything. However, there was little brush and it would be no problem to bushwhack. There were only more cliffs to my right, so I went left, bushwhacking along the cliff edge until I was facing the morning sun. Below me were the eroded cliffs and sculpted ground where O’Neal Creek joins the Piedra. The Piedra makes a sharp 90-degree turn from south to west here, while Piedra Road makes a similar sharp turn from west to north; the USGS map shows that spot as Deadman Curve, and I shall extend it to that segment of the river.
More bushwhacking led to find a faint trail heading in the right direction, and sure enough it would lead me along the west side of the Piedra River chasm and down to the river. It intersected the lower trail and a retired fellow was jogging along the trail and stopped to ask where my trail went. I told him and he asked me to inform his wife, Terri (sp?), who was coming along at walking speed behind him.
I waited for her and she asked if I were her trail guide. We fell into step and I found her to be a delightful companion for my walk along the Piedra. She and her husband, Paco, live in both Albuquerque and Mexico and I got some tips for things to do during my brief stay next week in New Mexico’s largest city.
They were camping nearby and going into town now and then. My blogging and lack of cooking skills makes me a better candidate for in-town hotels, although my dream would be to get a customized RV. My Dad loves VW campers, and I’d like something of a similar size but updated and I’d add in a tiny toilet, shower, and a satellite internet link. But since I live on an Oklahoma teacher’s salary, I’d better stick with my trusty Camry and budget hotels.
Terri took a photo of me along the river and I got a shot of her beneath the cliffs. We took turns playing lead dog and reached a footbridge across Williams Creek. You can’t see much of its canyon from that area, just as that area is obscured from the overhead view from Ice Cave Ridge. Terri took a shot of me on the bridge, remarking that she hoped the moon would show up – it did.
We strolled along and then Paco appeared, still running. He’s in better shape than I! It was a treat to meet them both and they invited me to visit them at their campsite later. One can meet some neat people out on the trail.
But now it was time for me to slow down and snap photos. So I wandered ahead while they headed back. The Piedra River now ran through a broad valley and this section of trail was shared by my trail, 596, and interloper trail 583, the 17.6 mile long Piedra Stock Drive Trail. Part of 583 is an old sheep stock trail which the Pagosa Area Trails Council has restored.
When 583 branched off again, that seemed a good place to turn around so I would arrive back at the trailhead before any possible afternoon thunderstorms got started. The view back was just as pretty, after all.
I went off-trail to visit the river, discovering a fisherman nearby. Back on the trail there were butterflies snacking on many a thistle and Penstemon halii and even the tiny cinquefoil and a Mariposa Lily had some critters (thanks to www.denverplants.com for their pop-up wildflower pictures to help in the identification).
The grass, trees, mountains, and sky were layers of beauty before me as I recrossed the Williams Creek footbridge and the Deadman Curve. The trail had been reinforced against a washout on the hillside, and I had remarked to Terri earlier how nice it was to see the maintenance. And whaddaya know, I ran into three forestry workers along the trail, axes and chainsaw in hand, doing good deeds, for which I thanked them.
Stone walls rose high above the opposite side of the Stone River (piedra = stone) and loomed over me as well, with one jagged point catching my eye more than once. The river tumbled over stones and I walked out to it – I was down in that chasm which was a dark gash in the ground hours earlier and now enveloped me. I shot a big panorama and a video of segments of the river.
The river was pretty all of the way, with some deeply eroded bluffs. As the chasm fell away, I passed some nice falls and the mountains hove into view. A barn up ahead looked like part of a postcard. It was time to leave this pretty scene behind and add Piedra River Trail 596 to my list of my all-time-favorites.
The drive back to town started out like Sting’s song, Heavy Clouds No Rain. Back out in the sun I passed some 4-wheelers coming off Indian Paint Brush Drive (my friend Betty calls any flower she can’t identify by that name), and they chased me out of the forest.
I cleaned up at the hotel and had a delicious open face turkey dinner next door at The Plaza Grille. Then, deciding I would not spend another late night editing photos, I spent the rest of the afternoon editing all of my Piedra River shots and composing most of this post, heading back out while the video and photos were uploaded.
I went to Reservoir Hill above the town to enjoy the peaceful forest. The San Juan Overlook provided a lovely view of the setting sun on the mountains to the north, with a cool breeze reminding me why I fled from home for two weeks. Golden hour arrived so I could shoot the cat tree and the beautiful sky, and I found some tree owls I did not recall from last summer.
The sun set and I descended and had some yummy fajitas on the deck above the river at Tequila’s. I was eating when the breeze kicked up, thunder roared, and a few distant lightning flashes told of an approaching storm. My luck held throughout, with no rain until I was in the car and the rain did not extend to my hotel parking lot three miles to the west. Now to rest, for tomorrow I ride the Cumbres & Toltec.