2010 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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MORE HIGH MOUNTAIN SCENERY:  
MINERAL CREEK TRAIL TO ROLLING MTN. PASS
 

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 30

 
". . . pass by a small lake to the west of the trail. Work your way up the rocky
(and sometimes snowy) trail to a saddle at mile 11.0 where the Mineral Creek Trail
intersects from the north (12,350 feet). Head straight ahead and begin a series
of switchbacks to [Rolling Mountain Pass] at mile 11.2 (12,520 feet)."
 
~ excerpt from description of Colorado Trail Segment 25,
The Colorado Trail Guidebook, 7th Edition, p. 216
 
 
One of my favorite Colorado Trail (CT) segments is #25 from Molas Pass to Rolling Mountain Pass and beyond.

It's just gorgeous, one of the best trails in the San Juans for hiking and running. Every time we visit Silverton I like to get up into the beautiful hanging alpine gardens and the basins formed between the Twin Sisters peaks (elev. 13,432 feet), Jura Knob (elev. 12,614 feet), and Rolling Mountain (elev. 13,693 feet).


View southwest from Rolling Mountain Pass

That's an 11-mile run or hike from Molas Pass, however (Molas Pass is south of Silverton on Hwy. 550). I used to be able to run that 22 miles out and back in a decent time but now that I'm just hiking, it'd be a full day to complete the round trip at my average mountain pace of 28-30 minutes per mile (considering the altitude, elevation gain and loss, and various stops).

That's if I was even in shape to do 22+ miles right now. I'm not.

So . . . where there's a will, there's a way, right?

A VIABLE ALTERNATIVE

Several years ago we found a faster way to get up to the pass and this lovely basin: just drive to the end of South Mineral Creek Road and hike up the Mineral Creek Trail, which I think I've mistakenly called the Rico-Silverton Trail in previous years' entries. It's a steeper trail than the CT but less than three miles up to the pass from the trailhead instead of eleven. That distance doesn't include exploring the large basin, which is east of the pass.

Nor does it include the part of S. Mineral Creek Road that we now must hike/run instead of drive = bonus miles.

When we had a 4WD truck we could negotiate the rocks on this road all the way back past the old Bandora Mine to the South Fork Mineral Creek crossing where the road ends. Not with the 2WD Ram, however.

We did a test drive to see how far back the road we could reasonably negotiate and discovered that we'd have to park in a little pull-off 1.7 miles from the creek crossing and trailhead. So now that out-and-back hike has been extended by 3.4 miles. Still, that's more doable for me than walking to Rolling Pass from Molas Pass.


Cody heads back South Mineral Creek Rd. to the trailhead.
Beattie Peak (elev. 13,342 feet) is in the background.

This morning Jim, Cody, and I drove to that pull-off, hiked 1.7 miles up the road, and climbed up Mineral Creek Trail through South Park to the pass. Then Cody and I wandered on and off the Colorado Trail through the alpine basin area for about an hour while Jim waited for us.

When we got back to the intersection with the Mineral Creek trail we headed down to the truck. Because the trail is so rocky in places Jim decided to hike most of the way instead of running. I walked all of it. (Doctor's orders.)

Here's a section of a map from the Colorado Trail guidebook that shows where we went today:

The red line is the CT. Segment 25 starts at Molas Pass ("A") which is off the map to the right. "G" is the intersection with the Engineer Mountain Trail. "H" is the Mineral Creek Trail intersection. The segment continues another ten miles south and west to Bolas Pass.

Jim and I followed the route I highlighted in light orange, first on the road, then the trail, then into the basin between G and H. Rolling Mountain Pass is left of H a little bit. You can see where Rolling Mountain, Jura Knob, and the Twin Sisters are located, as well as the Ice Lake Basin, Island Lake, and Clear Lake. Since these marvelous trails are close to our campground on South Mineral Creek Road, we use them frequently! The Hardrock 100 course runs through here, too.


Cody watches Jim descend into South Park

I had a total of 10 miles today, Jim about 8. We both got in a good workout and I got to enjoy one of my favorite places in the San Juans.

We lucked out with the weather, too. Sometimes we've been caught up in this basin in rain, sleet, snow, and thunder-lightning storms. Today was perfect, despite a forecast of 30-40% chance of rain. That was for Silverton, though. The chance of a storm at 12,500 feet in the San Juans is more like 95% every afternoon!

That's why we got an early start this morning. It took us about six hours to complete the hike, including all our stops. We began at 7:30 and ended at 1:30. That got us off the exposed part above tree line well before noon.


Increasing clouds as we descended toward the forested section of the trail

As you'll see from the photos in this entry, the sky was bright blue with nary a cloud early in the morning but by the time we were coming back down an increasing number of clouds, including gray ones, were coming in. While we were driving back to our campground (5-6 miles down the same road) we got a few sprinkles. We could use more rain in this valley to tame the dust on the road.

Once again I went crazy taking photos of the beauty surrounding me! Since I'm including 80+ pictures in this entry, I'll split it into two parts. This entry will show the road and trail up to the pass; the next one will focus on the alpine basins.

OUT AND BACK ON SOUTH MINERAL CREEK ROAD

This morning we parked at the pull-off I mentioned on South Mineral Creek Road. Jim's original intention was to go a different direction than Cody and me: he planned to go up the nearby Ice Lake Trail to Grant-Swamp Pass, which is on the Hardrock course. He changed his mind, however, and caught up to me after I'd gone about three miles.

The elevation where we parked off the road was 10,262 feet on Jim's GPS. We walked west for 1.7 miles to the trailhead, which begins at S. Mineral Creek. The elevation there is about 10,700 feet.

I'm not wild about hiking on this road. It isn't devoid of scenery, it's just not as remote as the trail part of this run/hike and on weekends there is considerable traffic stirring up dust. This afternoon we met only one vehicle on our way back to our truck, and none outbound in the morning. The creek and surrounding mountains are quite scenic. Although I've been back this road many times, today was the first I noticed this little canyon Mineral Creek has cut through the rocks:

Along the road we passed the location for the KT aid station during the Hardrock Hundred race, the trail a quarter mile farther up the road where the runners will cross the creek, and the location of the old Bandora mine.

In the next photo we're passing the mine area and approaching the end of the valley. Beattie Peak (elev. 13,342 feet) is in the background. We'll be making an arc to the left as we ascend the gulch called South Park between Beattie and Rolling Mountain on the right and the Twin Sisters on the left:

First we have to ford several shallow creeks. The next picture shows Jim and Cody walking through one of them on the way back to the truck:

If you drive back here you'll need a vehicle with high enough clearance for these streams, which are undoubtedly higher earlier in the season when there is more snowmelt.

The trailhead sign is just before the South Fork of Mineral Creek crossing. This one's deeper, although it was only calf deep today. Right now there are two channels. You can see the larger one in the photo below, which I took this morning on the other side of the creek, looking back to the road through the valley:

In the photo above you can see where part of the old Bandora mine was located (brown tailings in upper right quadrant).

I took the next picture on our way back to the creek this afternoon. Notice that now there are some folks camped near the creek. This is national forest land with free dispersed camping. The only problem is getting a rig back that bumpy road without destroying it!

The next two pictures are on our return to the truck this afternoon. Check out all those dandelions! We've seen tons of them in the San Juans and continue to joke about being in the Dandelion Time Warp:

Now we're almost back to the truck. The mountain that is prominent ahead of us is the unnamed 13er with the road we run/hike up to Clear Lake:

OK, on the outbound hike we're across South Mineral Creek and ready to begin our ascent to the high alpine area below Rolling Mountain Pass.

OUT AND BACK THROUGH THE FOREST

Ah . . . now we're on some nice single-track trail for about a mile through a rather thick pine forest with just enough sun filtering through to allow some flowers to grow. Although there are some rocks and roots the trail is smoother here than it is in the next section. The Forest Service keeps the trail in pretty good shape. We had to bypass only one blow-down today.

 

 

 

The trail crosses several small creeks and one larger one that all flow into South Mineral Creek.

The creek in the next set of photos runs quite fast because the trail crossing is right below a set of waterfalls. Fording it can be a major challenge when the water is higher than it was today. One year Jim was running on this trail alone and barely made it across because it was so treacherous.


Downstream


Upstream

As you can see in the next photo, finding the right rocks to step on is crucial; even when the creek is this low, the rocks are slick. I find it a lot easier to stay upright through creeks when I've got both my trekking poles, as I did today.


Trail crossing

ASCENDING TO THE PASS

I always love to pop out of the forest and get above timberline so I can see wide-open vistas. On this trail, you can spot the basin and Rolling Mountain Pass soon after you leave the woods and enter the marshy area full of low shrubs and flowers. From here to the pass is about 1 miles of mostly rocky single-track trail.

I'll mostly show photos in this section going up, then down.

This looks like a great place to spot moose but we've never seen any here:

There are numerous flowers blooming in the sunny meadows between 11,000 and 12,000 feet, particularly yellow mountain avens and colorful pink, red, orange, and cream Indian paintbrush:


Twin Sisters, 13ers with two peaks very close together, are to the left as you ascend to Rolling Mtn. Pass.


Mountain (alpine) avens and Indian paintbrush


The trail winds through several sections of thick, low shrubbery. Jura Knob is in the center background.

On the way up the trail colorful, hulking Rolling Mountain is to your right (west) and the Twin Sisters peaks are on the left (east). Ahead (south) is Jura Knob and the pass between it and Rolling Mountain. We'll get better views of all these mountains as we climb higher.


Rolling Mountain

Cody was happy to find some snow to play in as we ascended through the drainage area:

He'd have a lot more snow to roll around in when we got up to basin and pass. This is a good trail for dogs, with all the water available. He really didn't need any water from his pack today so we emptied his bottles on the way up the mountain to reduce his load.

As we get into the 12,000-foot elevation level there is less (and shorter) shrubbery and more tundra plants like the marsh marigolds and Parry's primrose growing in this wet area:

 

When you reach the basin, the trail gets flatter and you can easily spot the intersection with the Colorado Trail:


Jura Knob is ahead and on the left. Rolling Mountain Pass Pass is just to the right of it.

The elevation here is about 12,350 feet. To reach the pass, go right on the CT and follow the switchbacking trail that ascends another couple hundred feet in a quarter mile.

Half the times I've been up here, the pass has still had some snow on it. Today we could skirt around to the left of the snow in the rocks. If there is too much snow to make that feasible, just follow the footprints and aim for the CT post at the saddle:

The views from the pass are some of the best along the entire Colorado Trail.

Below, Cody surveys the valley to the south where the CT descends toward Cascade Creek. I love the colorful mountainsides and valley but we didn't go down there today:

Although there is still a snow cornice at the pass at the end of June this year, the snow was deeper here last year and would have been more problematic for hikers to continue down the switchbacks on the south side. You can get a good sense of the depth of the snow in the photo below when you consider that Jim is about six feet tall:

Last year when I was up here there was a good 20-foot drop down to the trail unless hikers detoured quite a ways up Jura Knob and tried to reach the lower part of the trail via rocks. Right now hikers can just walk in the rocks in the foreground right and get around the snow to reach the trail and cairn in the lower left of that picture -- much easier.

The trail gently switchbacks down into the valley on the other side. When I did this entire segment (#25) in 2006 I was able to run down the trail all the way to Cascade Creek, stopping only to take photos of the great views and myriad of flowers.

Today we lingered at the pass for 10-15 minutes so Cody could get a good snow-fix:

Even Jim had fun in the snow!

It didn't take Jim long to decide to climb most of the way up the cornice, then slide down on his butt. When Cody saw what he was doing, he made a beeline up the mountain, ears flying:

(The black thing in the snow above Cody is Jim's pack.)

After we played a while we descended back down to the intersection with the Mineral Creek Trail. In the next photo Rolling Mountain is on the left, the gulch (South Park) that we came up is ahead of him, and the side of one of the Twin Peaks is on the right:

The next view shows the basin and is looking northeast. Now you can see the Twin Sisters peaks.

That's where we went next this morning, but the remaining photos in this entry will be the descent from Rolling Mountain Pass. I'll feature pictures from the basin area in the next entry.

DESCENDING FROM THE PASS TO TREE LINE

After we explored the basin for over an hour we began our descent on the Mineral Creek Trail. Jim started out running, then walked (and waited for me) when the trail got rougher.


Jim starting his descent through the scenic gulch (South Park)


Twin Sisters peaks


Waterfalls on Rolling Mountain


Little falls along the trail; there are several small streams in the tundra area above timberline.


Neat little floral vignette


About halfway down to tree line


Rockier trail


Short rock field to cross; colorful mountains surrounding Ice Lake Basin in the background

 

 


Meadow full of flowers near tree line

That's what you'll see in June or July if you go up to the pass and back down to South Mineral Creek Road. To see what the basin typically looks like in early summer, check out Part 2.

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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