Begin on familiar in-town trails and discover two treasures in Durango’s undomesticated backyard. Pautsky Point, a sweet prize for a relatively small effort, is suitable for families and recreational hikers. Crader Ridge is more demanding.
Segue from the trail onto a wild wedge of uplifted sandstone that extends for two miles. Revel in spectacular vantage points overlooking town and the mountains of Southern Colorado.
Both hikes leave from the Horse Gulch Trailhead, elevation 6,600 feet. Walk east up Horse Gulch Road, a broad, mixed-use dirt track. Trails radiate from The Corral at 0.7 mile where you will find a detailed map of the region. Turn right and drop onto the Meadow Loop.
The beautiful valley, covered in sagebrush and rabbitbrush, was once the city dump which explains the glass remnants on the initial portion of the trail.
Bull snakes, rattlesnakes, and cougar track sightings are occasional. Flowering plants include phlox, lupine, Indian paintbrush, flax, larkspur, yellow stonecrop, serviceberry, filaree, and the uncommon standout, scarlet beeblossom. On weekends especially, Horse Gulch is Durango’s favorite scene. Trails come alive with mountain bikers, hikers, runners and dog walkers.
Pautsky PointReach the Telegraph Trail junction at 1.5 miles and turn right. The track punches through oak and piñon, cuts across a draw and swings abruptly south under the western scarp of Pautsky Point. The smooth dirt path has a gentle grade suitable for casual hikers. Views of the home country grow increasingly expansive as the treadway gains elevation above the valley floor. Smelter Mountain, Twin Buttes, Carbon Mountain and Ewing Mesa are picturesque juxtaposed with the eastern front of the La Plata Range.
After 2.5 miles, the trail makes a sharp swing north and passes under everyone’s favorite over-hanging boulder. Pass historic telegraph poles and then climb a rocky trackway that tops out on Telegraph Hill at 2.7 miles, 7,460 feet. Multiple trails radiate from this prominent intersection. Go right/south on a dirt path. In a few feet it leads onto a long sandstone slide, one of the best elements of the hike. If you haven’t climbed a friction pitch, this is a great one for starters. There are plenty of features in the rock to give you grip. The slide breaks up as the ridge rounds off.
Crest Pautsky Point at 2.9 miles, elevation 7,683 feet. The clifftop promontory affords a sweeping vista of Durango and the Four Corners region. Sitting rocks create an ideal picnic venue. After signing the peak register, retrace your steps to town.
For those going on to Crader Ridge: on Telegraph Hill turn left at the tribute stone to Bill Manning, past director of Trails 2000. Walk down the Anasazi Descent and intersect the upcoming route at the first switchback.
Crader Ridge to Point 8,175’ From the Meadow Loop, turn right onto the Telegraph Trail. In just one tenth of a mile, jog a few yards to the left and then make a hard right onto the Anasazi Descent. Yield to mountain bikers hucking down this technical ripper.
At 2 miles, elevation 7,340 feet, the Descent makes a sharp switchback south at a ravine. The off-trail route begins here. A large cairn marks a thin opening left of the trail. Walk up the boulder-filled drainage on a rugged social trail that stays in the gully bottom.
Pass a system of historic stone walls built by miners at a coal seam. One tenth of a mile from the trail, the ravine opens at a sloping sandstone wall, your landscape marker. Leave the draw at a large cairn. Head northwest up a hillside marked with reassurance cairns. In just 80 feet, intersect the sandstone rim of Crader Ridge.
The route is clear from here. Travel the intersect between stone and sky, staying as close to the raw edge as you dare.
For hikers who love the magical sensation of hanging out over space, you don’t have to go very far up the reef. Suspended slab slivers are only a third of a mile from the Anasazi Descent. The Blade slices through open air.
There are three prominences on the ridge. Crest Point 7,973’ at 2.5 miles. Crader Ridge is a remarkable moving vantage point. Views of the San Juan Mountains are ceaseless.
Local geologist John Bregar noted that Raider and Crader ridges are two in a series of hogbacks that are tilted up on the south flank of the San Juan Mountain uplift. Raider Ridge is held up by Mesa Verde Formation while Crader Ridge is Pictured Cliffs Formation. The hard sandstone layers resist erosion. Between the ridges is Horse Gulch, a strike valley comprised of soft Lewis Shale.
Cross the first of two extraordinary sandstone slabs. Walking on seamless and clean stratum is exhilarating, even for the seasoned slickrock traveler. Experience a little bit of Utah right here in Durango.
Point 8,055’ at 3.2 miles is so stunning it is a tempting turn-around. If you can, hold on for Durango’s premiere sandstone slab and highpoint beyond. The enormous, uninterrupted sheet is clearly visible from points east, including Grandview and U.S. Highway 160. Cross the airy top of the stone plate.
Fossils and sea floor ripples are embedded along the walking corridor. Tucked in the reef are a variety of plants including claret cup cactus, cholla, prickly pear, bladderpod and two kinds of yucca.
The terrain is brushy between the slab and crest. The final approach is a playful friction pitch. Summit at 4.1 miles. Point 8,175’ is the highest prominence on the ridge, and the feeling is lofty. The homefront panorama is delightful. Locate the peak register tucked into the ledge.
Return as you came. Please do not proceed further out the ridge or bail from it on either side. Private land surrounds. Besides, Crader Ridge is so enthralling, traveling twice doubles delight.
History of Public Access in Horse GulchThere are legions to thank for the privilege of public access in Horse Gulch.
Trails 2000, Durango’s trail advocacy group, has created and maintained a world-class system of trails. In the early 1990s, board president Daryl Crites secured public easements in Horse Gulch from community-minded Noel Pautsky. The easements were deeded to La Plata County. Public access was granted in perpetuity to the trail system including the Meadow Loop, Telegraph, Crites Connect and Anasazi Descent.
In 2015, Marc Katz purchased 1,850 acres encompassing Ewing Mesa and portions of Horse Gulch from the Pautsky family. While old trail easements remained in place, Trails 2000 has been working with the philanthropic and public-spirited Katz to grant public access to new trails.
A decade ago, the City of Durango began aggressively acquiring different properties in Horse Gulch as open space with Great Outdoors Colorado grants and open space funds. Included in this forward-looking endeavor was Crader Ridge. It was purchased from the Crader family and is designated city open space.
Private land abounds in this region; please stay on-route.
Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango. http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com.