This article describes a trip I made slightly over a year ago. Currently the area described is closed to hiking, and the south side of the mountain is burning in the Cameron Peak Fire. It shows the ravages of a forest fire in 2012, and provides a unfortunate glimpse into what impacts today’s fire might have on recreational use.
My friend Kevin McNinch was in town, and it was time for an adventure. Our plan for the day was to hike to West White Pine Mountain, a small peak in the foothills west of town. I’ve climbed it a couple of times from the usual trail, which leads from the south side of the mountain on Buckhorn Canyon road. This time I wanted something more adventurous. The mountains north of the White Pine mountains is traversed by Old Flowers road, a dirt track frequented by mountain bikers and off-road enthusiasts. The old topo maps of the area show a trail leading from Old Flowers road up to the summit, and this would be our objective.
The Old Flowers road was easy enough. Pretty at first, the road eventually entered the High Park Fire burn area. The trailhead was easy to find, but that was the end of the easy route-finding. It became obvious almost immediately that we would be dealing with navigational difficulties throughout the trip. The map shows the trail following a stream, and it probably did at one point. However, after the fires of 2012 came the floods of 2013. With ground vegetation destroyed, there was nothing to hold the soil in place when heavy rains came. As was seen elsewhere in the High Park fire burn area, floods struck the side of the mountain. The stream bed was a washed out gully, over six feet deep in places. The trail may have followed the stream in the past, but all traces of it had been washed away. In its place were dense stands of Aspen saplings, which were pretty but impeded rapid progress. On the other hand, the stream bed was impossible to miss, and we climbed up to a small pass between the main mountain and a little hill.
From there, we made our way up the ridge. After fighting our way through a mucky swamp, we started climbing up the ravine of Pendergrass Creek. Here we found scraps of trail… or maybe just game paths. We hiked up a burned lodgepole pine forest, staying out of a meadow on our left that looked filled with dense brambles. We were making good time and feeling confident about our rout-
I yelled as loud as I could when the gunshots started, hoping the shooters would hear me. And it appears they did, as one of them shouted back after a few minutes. We hiked towards the sound, yelling the whole time so that they would know we were out there. Surprisingly, we came out of the woods and onto an actual solid trail. Two concerned and embarrassed hunters greeted us with broken English. We’re not sure exactly what they were hunting. It was elk, but not deer season. It wasn’t clear why elk would be living in this burned out husk of a forest miles from any suitable elk habitat, but I guess it is theoretically possible. One of the hunters had a rifle, the other one just had a pistol. More likely, the hunters were out to just “shoot things.” In any event, we were all sufficiently freaked out that we decided to turn around.
The nice thing is that we had found an actual solid trail. We followed it rapidly down to the small pass, where it disintegrated into a pile of blowdown. Still, it clearly continued up the mountainside, and I look forward to finding and following it again in the future.
Back at the Jeep, we decided to continue the drive west on Old Flowers road. The drive was easy enough, but also a little depressing, as turn after turn revealed more burned forest. Small pines are growing underneath, but the signature feature of the forest was the dead trees hulking overhead.
The photographs above were edited to emphasize the charred black trunks and the starkness of the landscape. This was the impression that the landscape left on me that day. Signs of new growth were everywhere, from the tangled aspen thickets along the former trail route, to the preponderance of new pines growing in the burned forests overhead. Fire is ultimately a part of the natural cycle of the forest, and the ravages of the recent burns will fade over time. Still, in the aftermath of this year’s fires (Cameron Peak, Mullen, East Troublesome), we will be hiking through burned trees for a long time to come.