July 17, 2012
Gentle readers, I’m keeping very busy on this summer vacation, so I’m now running about three days behind on the posts…bear with me, I will get everything posted as quickly as I can. 🙂
On my third night of Operation Junebug I slept much better down at Gunnison, so the lower elevation prevented a recurrence of altitude sickness. After breakfast I drove west along the Gunnison River and Blue Mesa Lake to hike at the Curecanti National Recreation Area. The Dillon Pinnacles, breccia intrusions exposed by erosion, had caught my eye two days before and there was a hiking trail to them.
I drove 23 miles over to the trailhead, where a young lady park ranger was also heading out on the trail ahead of me. I poked along, seeing her diminishing figure ahead on the trail from time to time. I was rounding a big hill and then the pinnacles came into sight.
A sign explained how 30 some million years ago volcanic explosions yielded accumulating lava, mud flows, and rocks to form the breccia forming today’s pinnacles. Two million years ago the Gunnison River began carving away at the breccia, leaving behind what we see today.
The trail led upwards alongside a dry tree-lined channel. The day was warming quickly and I paused to sip water and zip off the lower part of the legs of my hiking pants, converting them into shorts.
I was close enough to the pinnacles to see large stones projecting from the breccia and a couple on the trail ahead of me provided some scale. The trail continued to climb and as it levelled out below the pinnacles I saw a sign and that the park ranger had stopped to chat with the couple on the trail.
I walked up and the couple headed onward while the park ranger turned and greeted me. We talked for over 30 minutes, with me asking her trail recommendations and her pointing out a few things about this trail. This friendly and clearly intelligent young adult brought out my past experience as a college advisor, prompting me to ask about her background and future plans. I found out she has a degree in geology and loves physics, conducting astronomy hikes at her different postings. She’s considering some day settling down and perhaps teaching high school earth science and physics, which of course led me to proffer advice and encouragement. It was a wonderful encounter and it is great to see such fine people working in our national parks, out helping folks and making us feel welcome.
I also learned from the ranger that this reservoir was topped out a few months back but had already been drawn down about 38 feet and she expected they would take it down to 55 feet below its full level. She explained that the primary purpose of Blue Mesa is to store up water so that the water level in Morrow Point and Crystal farther down the Black Canyon could be held up and for their big release of water from Crystal to recreate flood flows. The farmers are already making water demands in the unseasonably warm late spring weather.
Finally we parted and I headed along the trail, which does not try to make the steep ascent up to the pinnacles but runs parallel to the lake below them. I was now close enough to see their texture better, especially using my superzoom camera. I had a sweeping view of this portion of the lake, including the dam which I would be crossing later in the day.
One part of the formation had clearly different rock at the top, something the park ranger could have told me all about. A small pinnacle beside the trail allowed for a close-up inspection of the breccia and the lichen growing on it as well. I posed with the little guy and walked to a loop at the end of the trail, overlooking the lake and providing a view of more yellowish rock layers.
The wind suddenly picked up from a nice breeze to strong gusts, covering the lake in whitecaps and sending boats scurrying. I scurried too, ready to get off the windswept overlook. I took in another last view of some of the pinnacles along the way and was not surprised to find the ranger had left her lonely and windy vigil at the earlier overlook. She’d mentioned she would probably go work another trail down in the canyon. But the trail she’d mentioned that perked my interest most was a different one leading down into a side creek, so I would not be seeing her again.
I passed a young couple who had ventured down to a big driftwood tree by the whitecapped reservoir, and walked by the small mesa adjacent to the pinnacles while watching a sailboat motoring upstream. Reaching the trailhead, I hopped in my car and drove across the dam along highway 92, which hugs the north rim of this stretch of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, upstream from the national park.
Curecanti Creek Overlooks
Curecanti Creek, which is named after a Ute Indian chief, tumbles southward at Pioneer Point down into what was the Gunnison River and is now Morrow Point Reservoir in the upper section of the Black Canyon. Highway 92 has multiple overlooks at Pioneer Point, where Blue Creek also feeds into the reservoir from the south.
The narrowness and depth of both the side creeks and the main river channel are impressive, with the reservoir looking like a small green pool down below. It was a bit intimidating to think how I’d be descending 880 feet to reach the reservoir, part of the descent following Curecanti Creek. It was even more intimidating to know I’d have to haul myself back up!
The various canyon views were impressive, and from this overlook one could see another overlook nearby, which was perched on an enormous slab of swirly-colored stone. Later I found the overlook I was on was perched right on the edge of a big near-vertical slab. I used my camera’s superzoom to peer down at Curecanti Creek and the series of waterfalls I would be walking next to. This looked challenging and rewarding.
Descent to the Creek
I headed off along the trail, which at first led north along the rim high above the eastern side of the creek. There was a nice view south along the creek’s canyon as the trail began a few switchbacks in its descent down the eastern side of the canyon, with a jutting needle beside the trail. There were only a few steps along the way.
I reached the bottom of the eastern side of the trail and could now see the creek below me as the trail headed to a bridge crossing, providing a nice view of the creek. There were huge chunky rocks beside the trail and across the creek. I could look across at the eastern wall of the canyon, and one huge rock which had broken off and tumbled onto the trail showed signs of its turbulent formation.
Descending Beside the Creek
A tree growing across the trail and then up provided a unique seat for me while a butterfly alighted on a nearby pine tree and then shifted to another perch. The trail edged away from the western side of the canyon in a wider spot, where I was startled to see a picnic table, since this clearing was still high above the reservoir yet hundreds of feet below the rim. The table provided a nice view of the western canyon wall and here it contrasted sharply to the eastern wall’s appearance.
The trail ran through trees and alongside huge rockfalls on the western slope. Cool air blew out of holes and cracks in these rockfalls, providing some natural air conditioning. There are some deep crevices back there.
Now began a long series of waterfalls, cascading down boulders and ledges as the trail descended quite steeply. Somewhere along here something had died and the smell was quite atrocious. Later I found rotting fish remains beside one of the falls, so perhaps these were leftovers from a bear’s snack or the merciless waterfalls simply pounded them to death.
The view opened up and I could see a large spire on the eastern wall with a big bite taken out of it near the top. Later I found the enormous chunk of rock which had broken free. What an impact that must have been!
The view downstream was still gorgeous, with another bridge ahead, and the eastern wall was becoming much steeper. I crossed the second bridge, shifting me to the eastern side of the creek. There were more waterfalls below that, and a tree competing with the canyon walls.
Morrow Point Reservoir
As I approached the end of the trail, the eastern wall became truly intimidating and Morrow Point Reservoir became visible. The creek was tumbling over a broader array of rocks as it approached the lake. A large slab marked where the creek leveled out.
A vault toilet was situated here near the end of the trail, clearly brought in by boat. The trail finally ended at the lake shore. I turned around to look up the creek. The reservoir was quite narrow here, deep below the canyon walls.
I took the last bit of trail I could find for a promised view of the 700 foot high granite spire called the Curecanti Needle, which graced the logo of the old Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, a remnant of which is the Durango-Silverton line I’ve ridden twice before. If that was the needle before me, it sure looked different from this angle, so I probably missed something. Most shots I’ve seen of it are taken from a boat. Regardless, it had been a splendid and gorgeous hike down to here.
On the way back up I walked out on boulders to shoot the falls below the lower bridge from a different angle and then posed on that bridge. Farther up I again walked out on boulders to shoot one of the higher waterfalls. A Pearl Crescent butterfly posed for me as I ascended to the upper bridge and made my way back up to the rim overlooks.
Waterfalls are best appreciated in video, so here’s my collection of such clips from the Curecanti Creek Trail.
From the overlooks I took a shot of the view upstream and a bird of prey flying across the canyon. I found a nice spot for a shot and offered to exchange shots with a couple who were at the overlook with me. They have been coming up to Blue Mesa for years but until today had never crossed the dam over to this side of the canyon. I told them about the trail and the picnic table, etc. and they were very interested, planning to make the hike for a picnic lunch sometime.
Pine Creek Trail and Blue Mesa Dam
I drove back along Highway 92, stopping to shoot the view westward along the canyon. Farther along the road I could see the old Denver and Rio Grande narrow gauge railway path leading along the canyon wall. That portion is now the Pine Creek Trail, leading over to a boat landing on the lake for a park service boat tour I shall take someday to get a good look at the Curecanti Needle.
I pulled over for the view of the Blue Mesa Dam, an earthen dam now covered with riprap which rises 390 feet and is 785 feet long at the crest. The outflow spins two great turbines, each of which can put out 30 megawatts of electrical power. Below was the Pine Creek trailhead, with 232 steps descending from the canyonside down to the old railway grade.
The Curecanti Creek Trail was quite delightful with its magnificent canyon walls and waterfalls. The next day I’d be braving a return to the high country, heading up to the cabin rented by the Hendersons up at Taylor Lake Reservoir so they could show me around their favorite vacation spot.
Click here for a slideshow from this day hike
Junebug Day 5: River and Mountains >