Land, Water and People: High Country Journal 2017—Backpacking Canyon Verde

The flash of lightning penetrated the walls of my tent and closed eyelids followed by a loud clap of thunder that rolled on and on echoing between the canyon walls. Then the rain started. First just a light pitter-patter, but soon intensifying so that it sounded like a machine gun in an action movie. The lightning, thunder and rain continued for at least an hour. Sleep was impossible, but it was a show worth staying awake for anyway.

It was the first night of a four-day, solo backpacking trip in the South San Juan Wilderness. My plan was to hike up the lower South Fork of Conejos River, then take the Canyon Verde fork to Green Lake where I would catch the Continental Divide Trail over to Blue Lake and then down the entire length of the South Fork of Conejos.

The sky was clear the next morning allowing me to dry out my tent while I explored the surrounding area with my camera. One side of the small, lush wetland below my campsite was lined with dead spruce covered with old man’s beard. Long, stringy mats of pale, yellow-green lichen hung from the branches contrasting sharply with the orange bark of the tree trunks. Beautiful!

After a half hour of taking photographs, I packed up my now dry tent and other camping gear and began the hike up to Green Lake through Canyon Verde. The melting of last winter’s big snows and the onset of the monsoons made for saturated soils on the steep climb out of the canyon. Each step required as much energy to pull my boot out of the muddy trail tread as it did to push my body and backpack upward against gravity.

The wet slope also provided the perfect conditions to grow a thick carpet of colorful wildflowers atop leafy stems. The hillside looked like an abstract painting of white, purple, orange and green. Off to the side, beyond view, the creek roared in a deep gorge.

Eventually, the trail topped out above the canyon and moved closer to the creek. A deep snow drift had collected in a low spot above the creek. The creek had bored a tunnel fifty feet long through the snow. The tunnel arched several feet above the creek, its underside looking like it had been carved out piece by piece with an ice cream scoop.

I reached Green Lake a quarter mile further up the trail. The oblong lake sat below jade colored slopes topped with grey rim rock. A moderate breeze rippled the water creating a moving pattern of reflected grey and dark green on its surface. Up in the sky, the building clouds had organized into dark bottomed thunderheads and I knew it wouldn’t be safe to continue my planned hike up on the exposed Continental Divide.

Many people would be bummed about not being able to follow through with their plans or they might even push on, regardless of the danger. I looked around and smiled; this looked like a great place to hang out. I set up camp in a flat area among sturdy looking dead spruce several hundred feet away from the lake and then spent the afternoon exploring the ponds, wetlands and beetle-killed forests. Thunderstorms passed overhead throughout the afternoon – I had made the smart decision.

The next day, I hiked back down into Canyon Verde. The roar of the creek in the deep ravine stirred my curiosity. As I worked my way down the switchbacks, I kept looking for a place to bushwhack towards the creek. Finally, I saw my chance and negotiated my way across a steep avalanche path, through fallen timber and then over boulders along the creek bottom until I found the source of the roar. A spectacular waterfall poured off the side of a cliff at least 150 feet high. The rock wall was covered with velvety green vegetation and the spray from the falls coated my camera lens 200 feet away.

Wow! I wasn’t bummed about changing my plans one bit.

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.