Ceran St. Vrain Trail
The Ceran St. Vrain Trail is not located in the usual hiking areas around Brainard Lake, Peaceful Valley, or Rocky Mt. Park. It is by itself, within the Roosevelt National Forest west of Jamestown, and it follows the upper reaches of South St. Vrain Creek, whose waters come off the slopes of Mt. Audubon and eventually reach St. Vrain Creek and the S. Platte River. Ceran St. Vrain was a fur trapper and trader, who worked in this part of Colorado from 1824 until his death in 1870, and he has his name scattered across much of the map of the state.
The trail is not only a lonely oneit is quite new, having been built in 1978-79. Off by itself in the forest, it doesn’t stand out on the hiking maps and catch your attention, but my goal is to hike them all and to climb them all, so I wandered on over.
Just ten or twenty yards from the parking lot, the trail crosses the creek on a wooden bridge high over the water. Of course, at this time of year, the water is still, frozen, and covered with snow. A smooth, white way spread out below the bridge and swept around a graceful curve into an impressive gorge.
The trail skirts massive boulder out-crops, cuts across steep wooded slopes, and then drops to the level of the creek. No other hikers were out on this Wednesday. The forest was still. A raven circled overhead and called its gravelly caw. On the bank of the creek, I could hear the gurgling of the water as it swirled around rocks that emerged from the surface. In the sun, the dark rocks had been able to warm and push the ice and snow back an inch or two. Creek sounds reached up through these narrow openings to softly break the silence.
I passed a broad flat area where groups had set up tents and built campfires, but the sites were empty and quiet now. I passed through stands of pine and fir. Slender trunks reached up. There was little underbrush to block the views, but nothing moved. I felt a little like tip-toeing through the cloistered sweep. One of my hiking goals is always some kind of distant solitude and deep immersion into natural space, and I began to feel that.
Great piles of boulders reached up 50 feet or more. They were patchy with moss and lichen. Pockets of snow were bright against the darker hues. Across the creek, columns of rock formed vertical cliffs and fingers pointing into a blue sky. I walked out onto a rocky shoulder and back onto steeper slopes, crossed a little rill that at other times would be tumbling down the slope and adding its waters to the creek. Now, the flow was solid and here and there mounded up into rounded pillows where periodic flows had added layer after layer of ice to sheets that had formed before. Thick, stumpy icicles formed a sort of fringe. An apron of ice reached out into the trailI was glad to be wearing crampons, perched high above steep, snowy slopes.
After about two miles, the trail ended. The creek continued off to the northeast, cold and white and silent, and an old mining road headed northwest, up, and out of the valley. A sign described it as a “4-wheel-drive” road, but that was optimistic. The road was narrow, steep, and high-clearance. I thought maybe some kind of monster-truck with 10-ft. tires might climb itan old mining road, I suppose, long eroded now.
I climbed the track, emerged from the valley onto higher forest land, and came upon a maze of roads and trails wandering in all directions. I kept to what looked like the main way and continued northwest. An intersection was indicated on the map that didn’t seem to exist, and a four-way intersection did appear that wasn’t recognized on the map. Miller’s Rock was somewhere nearby, so I turned to the west and continued up and up. Off to the right lay a pile of rock. It didn’t quite seem to deserve a name. Over a rise, I spied more of a tower. That looked promising.
The rocks were rounded and heaped up tall. A little pine grew high in a notch, like a bonsai arrangement. I took off my pack, left my walking sticks, and clambered up. It wasn’t Miller Peak, or Mountain, or even Hill, but it certainly lifted me above the surrounding trees. I could look west to Mt. Audubon, and there was Elk’s Tooth and Long’s Peak. Hills and ridges stretched out to the east, and bits of the plains showed through the gaps.
At 4:15 p.m., I got back to the north trailhead at the creek. In the summer, I would automatically have had to backtrack, to return on the same trail on which I had walked in. Now, on the one hand, any trail will look different when you walk one way than when you walk the other, so I wouldn’t really be repeating the trip in. On the other hand, it is always satisfying to be able to hike a circle back to the car, to explore new territory on the way out, and now I could do it. I walked down to the creek and turned upstream.
Here, the ice was windswept and a translucent pale green. The day has been warm, and a film of water glistened on the surface. A fir has fallen across the creek. I step up the stair of a small waterfall and climb through the branches and over the trunk. There is a row of rocks, and the water is gurgling around them. It feels strange to listen to water so closerushing and sucking around rocks and logs embedded in the icebut the footing seems firm. Now there is an inch or two of snow covering the ice, and footing is more comfortable.
I encountered more logs and trees blocking the way and decided to reclaim the trail. The wind is picking up. The trees are waving to and fro. There are rushing sounds above and the creaking of one tree rubbing against another. The sun is sinking in the west, and shadows creep across the snowy ground. The temperature is falling noticeably. The crests of the eastern ridges are still sunlit, but the warmth seems to be fleeing.
I’ve seen no one all day. On the way out, there are only my own tracks in. I reached the bridge and stood looking down the canyon. The light is dim. The wind is up. Above, pink wisps of clouds are scattered in all directions across the sky. There is almost a full moon in a cobalt blue sky above blue white snow. Cold air flows slowly downstream.
Originally published in the
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