Our in-town mountain is sporting a couple of new perimeter trails that have hikers and mountain bikers gushing with enthusiasm. Everything about the trail experience is big and enjoyable. Weave through and play on colossal boulders under thick and towering ponderosas. Views are far and wide.
There have been various un-mapped trails on Animas City Mountain, locals say, for at least 30 years. When I wrote about the mountain in The Durango Herald three years ago, the perimeter paths were little more than fragmentary game trails. Unaffiliated individuals constructed the east and westside treadways, and now they are well-trodden additions to the trail system. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently developing a Resource Management Plan on the mountain. Until that is complete, these trails will not be formally recognized, signed or mapped.
The parking lot is packed on weekends, but the big mountain easily absorbs and disperses people. Although the 6.4-mile loop works equally well in either direction, this description goes counter-clockwise because navigation markers are clearer. From the trailhead, elevation 6,700 feet, start out on the standard loop up the east side. Just past the LPEA substation, the trail splits, bear right. You will be turning right at every junction for the first five miles.
The gentle grade ascends through a piñon-juniper woodland. Durango is in the Rocky Mountain and Utah juniper overlap zone. The Rocky Mountain variety are the feathery trees with abundant blue berries. Watch your step – male tarantulas are migrating this time of year. While they are North America’s largest spider, the furry wonders of southwestern Colorado are mini-tarantulas.
Eastside Perimeter TrailIn half a mile, two posts and a dangling silver chain mark one of several seasonal closure locations and the beginning of the Eastside Perimeter Trail. Turn right and track below an upthrusting cliff on a wide benchland safely suspended above the valley floor.
Keep company with boulders that have peeled away from the escarpment and tumbled to repose. These raspy and granular behemoths are just waiting to be climbed. A favorite is less than a mile into the hike. Daring climbers will find thin ledge features on the vertical front face. Children may climb the north ramp. Next, scammer all over the flat, broad surface of a toppled block. The eastside boulders come in all sizes – happiness for all who stop to play.
The path turns westward to rejoin the standard loop at 2.2 miles. As it happens, both trails are equidistant to this point. Turn right and arrive at the San Juan Mountains Overlook at 2.5 miles, elevation 8,000 feet. Far below a sliding plane of blue intertwines with a golden valley. The mountain vista spans from distinctive Engineer Mountain to flat-topped Mountain View Crest. I was here recently with geologist John Bregar, and we lingered for a geology lesson.
Animas City Mountain GeologyThe mountain is a classic cuesta, an asymmetrical ridge with an escarpment north and east, and a long and gentle backslope that conforms to the tilted beds of resistant sedimentary strata. Dalla Mountain Park is located at the southern base of the dipslope.
Missionary Ridge, with its 1997 gash, rises to the east. Its geology mirrors that of the mountain. The upper cliff band is Dakota Sandstone. The boulders we passed through are Dakota blocks that rolled down the Morrison Formation, a soft greenish gray shale and mudstone mix. Around the base of the mountain there are green rocks embedded in the trail. They are characteristic of the Morrison which harbors dinosaur fossils elsewhere in Colorado. The next layer is Junction Creek Sandstone, the climbers’ prize at X Rock and East A.
Continuing westward along the north edge, the trail climbs gently to the crest. Cairns mark the location at three miles. While the map labels the second prominence the summit at 8,161 feet, I’m pretty sure this first hump is a good 20 feet higher. A few limber pines, scattered white fir and quite a number of Douglas fir live on the crest.
Just past the second highpoint the trail splits. Either path will lead you to the La Plata Mountains Observation Point at 3.6 miles. Perching rocks overhang the hamlet of Turtle Lake. Dominating the eastern block of the range is Silver Mountain and Lewis Mountain.
Westside Perimeter TrailThe Westside offshoot from the standard trail begins at the map post near the observation point. Bear right onto a smooth dirt single track, a pleasing contrast with the rubbly interior footpaths.
The broad cuesta has a satisfying sameness. Look through the ponderosa and gamble oak to Perins Peak and Barnroof Point. With the return of spring, the forest floor is enlivened with thousands of exquisite white sego lilies.
At 5.2 miles, the south trending trail turns easterly and splits. The path to the right passes through a seasonal closure location and drops 250 feet over a quarter mile to link with the Ponderosa Trail in Dalla. For those familiar with the bouldering park, the link trail is located a few steps east of the biggest and finest boulder of them all.
Bear left to continue along the Westside trail and soon come to “The Ledge.” This area is well known to adrenaline junkies who get off on messing around on the rock sentinels. For the rest of us, there is something aesthetically appealing about a line of standing rocks cleaved from their wall of origin.
The Westside path melds almost imperceptibly into the standard trail at 5.8 miles. There are no cairns marking the junction, so take note if you ever want to do the hike clockwise. At 6.1 miles, the trail from Dalla Mountain Park enters on the right. To return to the trailhead, take any trail branching left. The second choice is shorter but steeper and scrabbly.
Seasonal Closure: December 1 to April 15The upper portion of the mountain, including the perimeter trails, is off-limits to human travel from December 1 until April 15. Chains are pulled across trails; you can’t miss the turn-back locations.
Joe Lewandowski of Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) said that by December animals have migrated from the high country to winter rangeland. Here they take refuge until food is once again available in higher elevations. Over winter, deer and elk are slowly starving, losing 30 to 40 percent of their body weight. Deer will begin dropping in April. The animals are vulnerable, hiding places scant. You may not see the game but they see you and flee, burning calories that are not replenished.
Be kind to the animals and honor the closure. Don’t travel beyond the chains. Both the BLM and CPW have enforcement authority and their officers issue $250 citations.
Trails 2000There are plenty of other places to recreate during seasonal closure. Consult the Trails 2000 website for suggestions. The upper mountain is managed by the BLM. The lower mountain is within city limits. Trails 2000 has an agreement with both to maintain the entire trail system. Trails 2000 would like to see the BLM adopt the perimeter trails because they are proven and sustainable routes.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.