The Missionary Ridge trail system is a superb training ground close to town.
There are multiple trailheads that offer a selection of generally snow-free, three-season hikes in the low country. In spring, aspen corridors are carpeted with purple larkspur and sunny dandelion. Spears of lupine and wood’s rose fill green glades with sublime fragrance. Look out from the well-earned ridgetop to the La Plata range and the San Juan Mountains.
The through-hike described here is a grand, all-day tour beginning on the most popular trail segment, Haflin Creek. It travels a whopping 19.2 miles and climbs a total of 4,440 feet before it arrives at Stevens Creek Trailhead. Most hikers will consider the climb to the top of Haflin a lofty-enough springtime goal.
While the entire stretch can be done in either direction, I prefer to climb the steep Haflin Creek Trail and descend the gentle Stevens Creek Trail. Haflin is popular with hikers, runners and mountain bikers, as it gains almost 3,000 feet in four miles.
From the Haflin Creek Trailhead at 6,640 feet, a well-maintained, red-earth track heads roughly east while switchbacking up an open slope on the north side of deep and rugged Haflin Canyon. All along are sweeping views of the Animas River Valley.
Plants on the west-facing slope belong to the American West: piñon and juniper, scrub oak, yucca, rice grass, rabbit brush and sage, mountain gold, snake weed and buckwheat.
At 1.2 miles, the grade softens and follows the contour, suspended well above Haflin Creek. Hugging the hillside comfortably, the track crosses two red sandstone creek beds, usually dry. The second crossing at two miles has a horizontal ladder for mountain bikers. The Permian Cutler Formation is so visually enticing, some regulars tarry here and then simply head home.
The trail comes alongside Haflin Creek and begins its no-nonsense climb to the ridgetop. In June, 2002, the Missionary Ridge Fire claimed 73,000 acres ranging in elevation from 6,500 to 11,400 feet in the Animas, Florida and Los Pinos river valleys. The entire Haflin drainage basin was incinerated.
While there is still enough standing dead to warrant being wary on a windy day, most of the scorched forest is on the ground. Once venerable ponderosa pine, spruce-fir and aspen look like pickup sticks. Trees are frequently cleared from the trail, but climbing over fresh deadfall is inevitable.
Capitalizing on open sky, youthful aspen are 10- to 15-feet tall. In the aftermath of the fire, wildflowers struggled to regain their rightful place. Now, by early June, the botanical garden is a wonderland of flowers: elderberry, chokecherry, snowberry and strawberry; heart leaf arnica, bluebell and fairy candelabra; mountain parsley, current, candytuft and buttercup; pussy toes and evening primrose; scarlet gilia, Indian paintbrush and many more.
The route treads the bottom of ascending Haflin Canyon to 9,200 feet before spinning onto a dryer, south-facing slope. It makes one final switchback and takes aim at the ridge on a rising traverse. Gain the ridge and intersect the Missionary Ridge Trail at four miles – elevation 9,480 feet – after a climb of 2,840 feet. Needless to say, there are plenty of logs to sit on while contemplating Durango’s home range, the La Plata Mountains.
An out-and-back on the Haflin Creek Trail takes four to six hours. Most people will turn around here. However, the local prominence, Baldy Mountain, is only 1.4 miles north. Stevens Creek Trailhead is still 15.2 miles northwest.
At 4.9 miles, the Missionary Ridge Trail bears left on a faint track marked with a cairn. For those who wish to summit Baldy Mountain, it is an easy one mile, round-trip diversion on an old road. Follow it to the easternmost high-point at 5.4 miles, 9,874 feet. Festooned with communication towers, Baldy is an industrial mountain. Still, there are some nice views between the annoying metallic tangle.
Return to the Missionary Ridge Trail at 5.9 miles. The path is on the west side of the ridge, bearing northeast. Pass the First Fork Trail, an eastern lateral at 7.1 miles. For almost two miles, walking is stellar, level and fast. At 10.2 miles, the Red Creek Trail goes off to the east. The trail merges with an old fire road at 11.0 miles. In spring, aspen create a lime green passage.
Reach a signed junction with the Stevens Creek Trail at 11.7 miles, 10,050 feet. Turn left/west. Our route leaves the Missionary Ridge Trail and ambles down to the Animas River Valley on this westerly ridge, the town of Hermosa visible on the valley floor. At 12.0 miles, go left at a fence, leaving the old road and onto a single track. This turn is easy to miss because the road continues while the trail gets faint and even disappears briefly after you pass the fence.
The trail to Wallace Lake branches right at 14.7 miles. Bear left, staying on the Stevens Creek Trail. At 16.8 miles, at the apex of a switchback that goes on seemingly forever, a mile in each direction, a trail veers right to join the Missionary Ridge Road. While our route stays on the main trail, spotting a shuttle vehicle at the terminus of either of these spurs will shorten the descent considerably. Upon reaching the southern end of the switchback, there remains a 1,200-foot drop over 2.4 miles. At 18.2 miles, go left and soon you will be at the Stevens Creek Trailhead.
The First Fork and Red Creek trails, located on the east side of Missionary Ridge, originate from a shared trailhead past Colvig Silver Camps. Both trails climb to the ridge and back in just over seven miles, with 1,700 and 2,100 feet of climbing, respectively. The Red Creek-Missionary Ridge-First Fork loop is 10.2 miles.
For driving instructions and trail commentary for these east-side laterals, as well as the west-side, off-trail ridge option to the top of Haflin creek, consult: debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com.