Killdeer Creek to Houselog Creek: What will become an all-time favourite
Friday August 11, 2017, 45 miles (73 km) – Total so far: 226 miles (364 km)
There are some days on tour that stick in your memory for all the right reasons. You might pedal down 130 days, each memorable in its own way, but only a handful will stick in your head as some perfect combination of factors and events and a perfect day. Today is one of those days. It is bookended by ‘wild camping’ in random spots in the forest, so that puts it in a good position to start (and end).
The true start is COLD. I totally disregard the 5.15am alarm. I woke up cold last night and had to zip right up and cuddle down in the early AM. No way I’m crawling out yet!! I finally peel back the warmth and emerge around 6.30am. The tent is soaked inside and out. My thermometer says 36F. Brrrr…. And my fingers are so not happy about packing up a cold, wet tent. But as soon as we get ready to roll, the day comes good and just gets better and better.
The skies are pretty ominous to the west. The clouds are dark and low over there, but somewhat lighter in the direction we are heading. There will be sunny bits among the clouds all morning. But I am pretty sure we are going to get wet today, and almost all of the day will be on gravel and dirt. But I am not worried as I’m in the zone now – I’m in the groove. We’ll take it as it comes. I don’t have any distance I HAVE to do, I don’t have any certain place I have to be. I am just out there riding – and that provides the right background conditions for a perfect day.
We roll out to a short climb. There will be a few short climbs interspersed with long, flowing miles of downhill. We travel through sections of forest and huge sagebrush meadows. We are flowing right down the Los Pinos graben on a sinuous slide toward the Cochetopa Park caldera. The morning is COLD but dry and invigorating.
The surface is quite good and the views long and varied. The flow is terrific. I love gravel downhills that aren’t steep. You don’t have to intensely look for the right line and weave every few feet for large rocks or erosion ruts. You don’t have to be on the brakes most of the time. You just skate along like a figure skater doing long S-curves or graceful glides on a single skate. Long, flowing gravel downhills are joy – and unlike paved downhill runs, there is just enough surface looseness to add an extra element of excitement and reflexive reaction.
And so we flow downhill – all the while watching the rim of the Cochetopa Park caldera coming closer. We round a corner through some forested bits… and sight a bear. Not just any old bear, but a BIG bear. A big black bear. He is heading down the road, too. How cool!! It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen a bear in the wild (campgrounds at Glacier don’t count). I roll to a stop. I try to remember – now just what is it I’m supposed to do if he comes my way? The squeaking of my front rim alerts the bear to my presence. For just a second or two, we both pause and look at each other. I reach to get my camera and he bolts off up the hill. 20 minutes into the day and I get to see a bear – how perfect is that!
Our long, flowing downhill recommences. As we get to where the Cochetopa Park caldera rim is (but not visible at the surface), the road gets even more sinuous – like a snake on the move with somewhere to be. It gets a little steeper, too. In the inside corners, there are corrugations and ruts. Some rock is exposed. But there is no traffic at 7 am – and the whole road is mine to weave and flow. I ride wide into the outside corners and feel like a rally driver just gliding down thinking “8 left, left, 4 right, hard right, flow, flow, flow”. Oh my goodness, this is soooooo much fun. I don’t want it to end. There are few times when you can cruise along with so much flow and feel so alive and so very present in that exact time and space. But that is where we are today.
Down, down – out of the saddle (my butt is appreciative) and just leaning into and out of the corners at 25mph avoiding the rutted or corrugated bits and finding a super-fast line through the smoothness. The white noise of rubber on small gravel and the click of the freewheel are the only sounds this early morning.
We drop into the caldera and out of the forest. The county road deteriorates a bit and we lose our downhill, so there is more effort. Narrow, volcanic walls close in as the creek and road meet up again. However, the layers of history here are quite interesting. We are riding into a huge ranch – Old Indian Agency Ranch – most likely owned by the same family from settlement. Agency Creek got its start as a government agency handing out annuities to the bands of Utes in the area in 1869. There is an early stage route that heads to Lake City through here, too. If you want to know more, check out this excellent article: http://cozine.com/2000-may/when-opportunity-knocked-on-saguaches-door/
On a particularly rocky section of road, I hear a vehicle coming. So I pull over and stop, to give them room and to stay off the sharp rocks. The huge pick-up has fencing materials in the back. The cowboy hats of the driver and passenger fill up most of the cab. The driver slows beside me and says in an irritated voice, “So do you have a question?” I reply, “Um, no. I was just pulling over to get out of your way.” He nods and says, “Oh, okay.” And then he continues on. The passenger never even looked over. They must be used to lots of cyclists on the Colorado Trail coming through their ranch.
We head on out into the wide valley. The rim of the Cochetopa Park caldera and the area within it is laid out so strikingly beautiful in front of me.
The geologists call this caldera an “enigma” because it is so morphologically intact and because it shows so little subsidence. The material spewed from its source don’t quite match its size, also (usually the amount of material flung outside the volcano and piled up within match the depth and area of the caldera). The other ‘in-your-face’ and ‘out-of-place’ structure is immediately adjacent to the road on the right after you pass by the main ranch buildings. You’re in this big circle of a caldera, but what is this ridge thing doing cutting right into it from the western side? You have to ride around this big tongue of material before FR 788 joins the county road that goes past Dome Lakes. Funny you should ask. That is a flow of Nelson Mountain tuff which flowed from one of the subsequent calderas within the La Garita caldera after the Cochetopa caldera activity had ceased. The satellite and terrain views on the google map show this very well.
I have to play cattle dodge-em for a mile or so. I roll my eyes. The ranch we are riding through is massive – yet where are all the cattle? Yes, grazing and degrading the adjacent BLM land. If you’ve never read about grazing leases, fees, cow/calf units and the cost to the American taxpayer for the damage caused by these leases… well, it is enlightening… and you will probably never again feel sorry for western ranchers taking over US government buildings and partaking in stand-offs with police over lease conditions. This issue was one of the first to penetrate and piss-off my young, environmentally-minded head through coursework at Colorado State way back in the mid-1990s. But enough, let’s peel off some layers, snack and then get on with our ride.
We round the ridge of Nelson Mountain tuff to get a full-on gorgeous view of Cochetopa Dome – a mountain composed of three different rhyolite flows that were a resurgence of volcanic activity after the caldera had spewed and subsided.
I’m glad the road is smooth… because I’m not looking at it much. I’m looking at the flows, that Nelson Mountain tuff, the caldera fill and possible locations for various caldera rims in the distance. Good road surface, good stuff for my head, quiet traffic, legs into a rhythm, far from anywhere… yes, I will remember this day on the road for a long time to come.
We pass by the Dome Lakes and a few fishermen out early. The bird life is varied – I wish I knew more waterfowl because I noted at least 6 different species but don’t know the names for any of them. I keep stopping to look at stuff. The sky continues to get greyer. But I don’t want to rush these views or my thinking. I gaze off at the La Garita Range and try to compress distance in my head to think about different caldera rims, tuff flows, present-day creeks, and timeframes.
We round the corner and the road tilts more upward. I see two guys on bikepacking rigs coming from the Colorado Trail. We exchange hellos but don’t stop to chat. I think bikepackers probably look down on traditional cycle tourists sometimes because it is viewed as a lesser form of riding. I’m not needing to stop because it is pretty obvious where they’ve been and where they are going most likely. I’m too into my nerdy thoughts to want a conversation. So we just say ‘hello, have a great ride’ and continue our respective rides. I’ll see another CO Trail rider coming down from the Cochetopa Pass direction heading onto some double-track in thirty minutes or so – he exchanges even fewer words.
The road rolls onto the white ashes of valley fill. There are mining claims and even an old tunnel near the road. I wonder what they were going for in these loose ashes and welded tuffs. The road is particularly smooth through here – I love how events from 30 million years ago can so directly impact your ride experience in the present-day.
If these narratives spark your interest, you can get the complete and more accurate story plus geologic maps and photos for these areas here: https://pubs.usgs.gov/sim/3123/
And here: https://pubs.usgs.gov/imap/i2799/
I stop to have more of a look at Cochetopa Dome from another angle. I imagine caldera rims and what it would have been like to be here just after the explosions. Then I ride up and out of the caldera – its rim margin paralleling to our right up Archuleta Creek valley for a bit. The road is good, the climb very gentle, the views close and tight. The pines grow right down to the valley floor on the rounded hills – the creek and floodplain grasses reach out to the slopes.
I come around one corner to see eight pronghorns on the hillside. They freeze then bolt. These are my favourite animals – fastest land animal in North America and the only species left in their family tree. One bear, eight pronghorns, yes, life is good.
I come around another corner and meet a herd of cattle. I stop. I wait. The rancher on a horse looks to be in his 80s and like he just stepped out of an old Western. Everything about him says ‘classic’ and ‘old-timer’. He yells, “Ride on through!” So I do. Slowly. Less than walking pace, dodging fresh cow shit and large animal bodies. They scatter in front me. The rancher pushes them forward. When we get even with each other I say, “Thanks, have a good day.” He replies, “Sorry, they don’t like people much.”
Then our climb to Cochetopa Pass and our return to the North Pass caldera commences. There’s a switchback that leads to a long rounding curve. Then it’s gentle curves and moderate climbing through aspen to the pass. I love climbing. I love the rhythm, the effort, and the feel of my lungs, legs and heart working together. That is why any tour, even one this short, needs at least one good climb a day 🙂
There are plenty of places to camp at the pass, but no sign proclaiming the pass itself. There’s a sign about the historical route, and a stone monument whose plaque has been ripped off. I stop for a couple pictures, but darker skies to the west push me on.
The downhill is good and pretty fast, but there are a few sneaky uphills. We fly down through forest and aspen and then find ourselves in the Luders Creek valley. This is where the Luders Creek tuff was named for. We again get a great flowing downhill through the valley and bomb down at 30mph on gravel. Yippee! Plenty of dispersed sites to camp at along here. I could stop. I could just laze around the rest of the day and be set up before it rains.
But no, I’ve got flow and a fast downhill. Let’s keep it rolling. And so we do – the perfect day continues. Down, down, curve, curve, 30 mph flow. Eventually we climb out of the Luders Creek valley with some really interesting textures in the tuff to view as we climb around through Ponderosa forest. Then it’s a downhill through Rabbit Canyon and on down through all the areas I looked at a few days ago from the top of the ridge by Houselog Creek. It is steep and rocky enough through Rabbit Canyon that I’m on the brakes a lot and working slowly through sandy bits, corrugated bits and rough, sharp rocks. The canyon narrows right down between flows of Carpenter Ridge Tuff (Bachelor Creek caldera 27.5 mya) and Fish Canyon Tuff (that massive sheet from the La Garita caldera 28 mya). Then we are almost out of the North Pass caldera and rolling toward the main road on an open and gentle downhill. Yee-ha!
That fairly fresh chipseal from the other day has made the ride smoother back on the highway, but the dust from passing vehicles (and there are vehicles every minute or so – darn CO summer traffic!) coats us by the time we turn off and head back up Houselog Creek. The rain is getting more imminent – it’s been a long time since there was any sort of sunbeam.
So I decide we’ll camp along the same water source as the first night just inside the forest boundary. Instead of camping in the trees on the north side of the creek, I head up the Big Springs track for a couple minutes on the other side of the creek to an open dispersed site I saw when walking up the creek the other day. It’s Friday night, and given the number of people I’ve seen so far on this trip, if I don’t snag this spot, someone else will. Then my little site in the trees will be close enough to get campfire smoke and noise from people here and people back at the open area by the forest boundary sign. Preventative camping. (It’s a good call – people end up camping down by the forest sign late in the night- and a couple in a four wheel drive came up in the evening hoping for my site.)
I just want to sit and eat. And so I do. But the clouds are threatening, so I grudgingly get up and set up the tent before I really want to end my rest break. It’s a good thing I do. The rain starts not 30 seconds after I’ve got the tent up, panniers inside and shower cap on the bike seat.
Ahhhh….. perfect day, perfect timing. We celebrate with a nap. And more snacks. Not much food rationing is necessary today as there will be sources tomorrow to refuel and restock. After the shower has passed, I take the guys down to float in the creek and to soak my muscles in the ice-cold water. A perfect end to a perfect day. A bucket bath up the hill at a Leave-No-Trace-distance from the creek will complete the perfect day. More pre-Perseid meteors in the early hours after the clouds have moved out will be the perfect start to the next day.
Oh, man… today was awesome. It can be summed up in one four-letter f-word: