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A new route to an old favorite, from Turtle Lake to Animas Overlook

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Saturday, May 12, 2018 9:28 PM
A narrow opening reveals Entrada Sandstone cliffs below. U.S. Highway 550 rolls pleasantly through Hermosa and then rakes up into the San Juan Mountains.
Begin at the Turtle Lake Bouldering Garden and walk north through BLM property to the Log Chutes trail system in the National Forest. Hike east on the Scenic Route above the Turtle Lake valley and swing north tracking Hidden Valley to the Animas Overlook. Return on the Cut-Off.

One of the great pleasures in hiking is finding new routes to old favorite areas.

Last December, a friend turned me on to a trail that utilizes a thin swath of BLM property to connect La Plata County Road 205 with the National Forest. It launches from the Turtle Lake Bouldering Garden, goes through a break in the cliffs and links hikers and mountain bikers with the Log Chutes trail system.

Log Chutes offers miles of trekking options on old logging roads repurposed into mountain bike trails. This hike follows the rim of the eastern escarpment of the Barnes Mountain cuesta to the Animas Overlook. Along the way, there are cliff-rimmed lookouts of the Turtle Lake community, Hidden Valley, the Animas River Valley, Missionary Ridge and the San Juan Mountains.

If you have driven or ridden your bike out past Turtle Lake, you’ve surely noticed climbers playing around on mammoth boulders west of the road. Squeeze into the parking pullout at elevation 6,940 feet.

Cross the two-lane, go right of the roadside boulder with the overhanging face and start weaving through fallen giants. There are more than 50 climbs identified in the popular bouldering park, and trails spin off every which way.

Irresistible viewpoints are frequent. Missionary Ridge rises 3,000 feet above the Animas River Valley.
Debra Van Winegarden/Special to the Herald

The trickiest segment of navigation is right here at the base of the scarp. The immediate goal is to locate a rugged trail up the first pitch. Follow the main trail to a gigantic toppled block and go to the right of it. Then walk between two resting monsters.

I marked the proper track with cairns. If they are absent, continue walking parallel to the road until you come to an open area with a fire ring and log teepee a short distance to the right. A mountain bike trail emerges from the forest and exits onto the road. Turn left and follow the bike tracks uphill. They lead onto a stony slope at 0.2 mile. This steep, 150-foot climb is as rugged as this hike gets.

After a brief stretch of clambering, the trail heads to the right and transitions onto a constructed, well-engineered path that meanders magically around all impediments.

Old growth ponderosa tower above the Gambel oak and piñon-juniper woodland. At 0.5 mile, the singletrack passes a stone foundation. People who frequent this trail conjecture this is a historic still from Durango’s bootlegging days in the 1920s.

The route works its way up a broad ravine through the Morrison Formation, a soft greenish gray shale and mudstone mix. There is not a lot of cliff structure in the recess, and the trail makes the most of the weakness to penetrate the Dakota Sandstone. There’s been a whole lot of tumbling going on. Scattered on the slope, the boulders keep it interesting. Some rolled all the way down to the climbing park.

A hiker at Animas Valley Vista looks over to Animas City Mountain. A low ridge separates Hidden Valley from the Animas River Valley. Meandering oxbows span the width of the floodplain.
Debra Van Winegarden/Special to the Herald

At 1.2 miles, there is a T-junction marked by a cairn. Turn right and shortly cross a spring. Watch carefully for the winding treadway in this area. At 1.4 miles, 7,720 feet, the soft dirt path ends at an old logging two-track. The remainder of the hike is on US Forest Service property. For those familiar with the Log Chutes trails, the roadbed is shared by Loops No. 2 and No. 3. The junction is not marked, so take careful note of your location. I built a huge cairn here, but if it is missing look for the fallen tree laying across the road a few paces to your left.

Turn right/east. In half a mile – 1.9 miles from the start – the Scenic Route and the Cut-Off split at an unsigned Y. I typically take the rim route going uphill and the Cut-Off, saving half a mile, on the return. Bear right on the more primitive track.

The ponderosa were logged 120 years ago to build Durango. Some of the most venerable trees were spared, but most of the forest is youthful. At the slightest breeze, pine wind is a winsome companion.

Upon reaching the lofty southeast corner of the cuesta, the track swings due north, narrows to a rocky treadway and shoots up a rather steep hill. At the top of the rise, you will see a lineup of soaring peaks in the Weminuche Wilderness. Directly below is Hidden Valley.

At 2.7 miles, the Cut-Off joins from the left. Memorize this junction for the return. Climb a small roller and then step aside to a little opening revealing the cliffs below. The prominent rock formation is Entrada Sandstone. Basketmaker archaeological sites are located within protected alcoves.

The volume of earth space at the Animas Overlook spans from the valley floor to fourteeners in the Weminuche Wilderness. Two hikers look toward the Twilights.
Debra Van Winegarden/Special to the Herald

A map of the Log Chutes trail system, managed by Trails 2000, is located at a junction at 3.2 miles. Continue straight up the road.

There is an astounding overlook at 4.0 miles informally named Animas Valley Vista. A low ridge separates Hidden Valley from the Animas River Valley. Meandering oxbows span the width of the floodplain. Missionary Ridge rises 3,000 feet above the valley floor. In January, a golden eagle circled below. If you have but half a day to hike, this is a satisfying turn-around.

The abandoned logging road dwindles to a singletrack. It transitions onto the Animas Overlook Interpretive Trail, a paved wheelchair accessible path. Picnic tables take advantage of panoramic views.

Reach the overlook at 4.8 miles, elevation 8,960 feet. The vantage point features the San Juan Mountains. West to east are Rolling Mountain, Twin Sisters, Engineer Mountain, the Twilights, Pigeon Peak, Mount Eolus and Mountain View Crest.

Note: The overlook is accessible by vehicle. It is 7.5 miles from the Colorado Trail up graded Junction Creek Road, Forest Service Road 171.

Retrace your steps down the pleasant backslope. The fastest return route is the Cut-Off, half a mile below the Log Chutes map. Turn west and walk straight toward Perins Peak and North Perins Peak. You will transition back onto the upcoming route, possibly without realizing it. Keep a sharp eye out for the link trail on your left. Take the downward path to the rubbly pitch. At the base, spur trails splay out in a confusing maze. Just keep heading down and to the right and eventually you will pass between the two colossal boulders and out onto the road.

http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.

Travel basics

Travel: From Main Avenue in Durango, go west on 25th Street. It transitions to Junction Street and then La Plata County Road 204/Junction Creek Road. At the first stop sign, 2.8 miles from Main Avenue, turn right onto County Road 205. Pass Turtle Lake and watch for a long parking pull-out on the right as you are midway up a hill. A large undercut boulder on the northwest side of the road marks the spot, 1.1 miles from the stop sign.


Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.2 miles; 2,240 feet of climbing for the Scenic Route, ascending, and Cut-Off, descending.


Time: 4 to 6 hours


Difficulty: Trail; navigation moderate; no exposure


Maps: Durango West; Durango East, Colorado 7.5’ USGS Quads or Apogee Mapping

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