High Country Journal 2018: A weekend in the La Garitas


Vibrant red berries ordained the raspberry bush like Christmas ornaments next to the trail. They looked too delicious to resist, so Pam and I stopped to pick several. I closed my eyes and placed the first one in my mouth totally absorbed in tasting its sweetness. Totally absorbed in tasting the mountain.

Pam and I decided to spend a long weekend backpacking in one of my favorite areas in the La Garita Mountains. It’s an area that receives little traffic, so I will not provide specifics as to the location.

Redberried elder, gooseberry, raspberry and currant bushes shared space below the dead spruce with pink fireweed, tangled mats of strawberries, and dense colonies of young spruce trees. Gray jays called out to us as we hiked up through nature’s garden.

Eventually, we reached our camping spot at the edge of a flat subalpine meadow sitting a few hundred feet above a small creek. We pitched our tent a bit more than a tree length out into the meadow surrounded on three sides by dead spruce. Thirteen thousand foot peaks soared above our camp, their tops almost scraping the bottoms of the darkening clouds.

Soon it began to rain lightly and we used it as an excuse to escape into our new tent. The pitter-patter of rain on a tent is so relaxing and before long we were both dozing off into a semi-conscious state of sort of being awake and sort of dreaming.

The Rio Grande National Forest is about 1.8 million acres in size with about half of it is designated as either roadless or wilderness. Roadless areas still allow for motorized and mechanized (e.g., mountain bicycles) trails, but not four-wheel drive and sedan roads. Designated wilderness does not allow any motorized use. In other words, there is a lot of backcountry to get out into.

It seems like you can run into a lot folks even in the backcountry, though, especially those areas with 14ers to climb or creeks and lakes to fish. Pam and I wanted a little solitude on this trip, so we avoided those kinds of areas.

After about 30 minutes, the rain stopped and we crawled out of the tent. The clouds were beginning to break up exposing some blue holes in the steel sky. We decided to get in about a half hour walk before the sun set. Droplets clinging to tall grass and thick shrubs quickly soaked our rain pants as we hiked through the dead spruce towards higher ground.

Within just a few minutes, we broke out into the open allowing us to see a large subalpine meadow below and an alpine meadow above that curved up joining with the grey and purple colored talus covered peaks. We edged our way over a grassy rise and spotted a large herd of elk spread out in a lush green wetland. One group of about a hundred grazed in the sedges while another group of about 50 hung in a stand of willows. We stood there motionless for about 10 minutes before slowly backing away without disturbing them.

The blue holes had expanded taking over one third of the sky and the bottom of the clouds turned pink as we quietly walked back towards the tent. Seeing a herd of elk below thirteen thousand foot peaks at sunset has a way of removing any need for speaking.

Back at the tent, I started up the stove and put on a pot of water while Pam dug out freeze dried vegetarian curry. The water was soon boiling and the food pouches filled with the proper amount of hot liquid, give or take a half cup. We each put our hot food pouch under our down jackets close to our bodies to warm us and allow the food to steep for 20 minutes. Planets and stars slowly filled the sky with pinpricks of light and coyotes yelped off in the distance.

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.

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