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Flaming hues of fall close to Durango

Splendor of Dry Gulch Trail and Dry Fork Loop

Nature has thrown the switch. Rabbitbrush pumps out the wattage. Gambel oak weaves flaming tapestries. Aspens spin translucent yellow disks. You needn’t drive up into the mountains to celebrate autumn. It’s happening right here in Durango.

Following are two family-friendly trail hikes. One leaves from town and the other is a few miles west. Both trails will be off-limits once the winter closure period begins Dec. 1.

Dry Gulch Trail

The Dry Gulch Trail utilizes an old wagon supply road that once connected Durango with ranches in the greater Lightner Creek watershed.

Begin at the trailhead in Rockridge and turn around as you please or upon reaching Dry Fork Road. This tranquil hike through foothills grassland is prized for its supreme view of North Perins Peak and its pristine nature adjacent to town. The eight-mile, out-and-back is within the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area and is open to the public four months annually – August through November. The trail is open to foot traffic only and dogs must remain on leash.

Two trails start from the trailhead, elevation 6,880 feet. The path to Perins Peak heads west and immediately crosses Dry Gulch. The Dry Gulch Trail bears north and stays on the east side of the drainage.

Don Zirkelbach, Betsey Butler and Lynn Coburn walk through light-filled grasses beneath the sun-drenched cliff profile of Perins Peak. Old-timers all agree that the luxurious grasses are the tallest they have ever seen.

Chet and Eva Thompson settled in Thompson Park in 1870 with 20,000 head of cattle. Their son continued ranching until the late 1960s. The family sold the property to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife to keep it undeveloped. Before the land became a wildlife refuge, the two-track was open to motorized traffic. In winter, the wide-open hinterland was a training ground for the Durango Nordic team. Now, it is stone quiet back in this uninhabited quarter.

Because the trail is open to foot traffic only, and so briefly, it is vulnerable to becoming overgrown and obscure. Old timers claim the luxurious grasses this season are the tallest they’ve ever seen; there are ample opportunities to lose the trail. The meadowland is framed with aspen and conifer on north-facing slopes.

Tumbled-down, stone block masonry is all that remains of a homestead at 1½ miles. A natural spring feeds a stock pond. It is filled with cattails now, but years ago, it was a significant water source. This peaceful setting was once a sanctuary for terminally ill people. They raised fruits and vegetables; farming implements remain scattered in the woods.

The trail passes north of the North Perins Peak escarpment, the highpoint of the Perins cuesta. There are several sensational sightings of the stone blade, a destination for scramblers.

The valley tightens and the pathway grinds uphill through an old-growth forest. At 2.7 miles, there is a spring south of the trail in the vicinity of a stately, dead ponderosa. Ten paces past the tree, the trail branches. Take the righthand fork, climbing in the trees a little further to the highpoint of the hike at elevation 7,700 feet. The subtle divide is a typical turn-around location.

The tranquil hike on the Dry Gulch Trail is prized for several supreme North Perins Peak viewpoints and its pristine nature adjacent to town.

From the pass, gathered waters run west into the Dry Fork of Lightner Creek. There are occasional La Plata Mountain vantage points. Descend pleasantly to Dry Fork Road at 4.0 miles, 7,300 feet. Trail runners who want to put in a long training day may turn right on the road, continue 0.6 mile to the Dry Fork Trailhead, and tack on the loop. Wow!

Dry Fork Loop

This stem and loop is an easy-going, nine-mile hike incorporating three buff, multi-use trails, especially popular with mountain bikers on weekends. While the Dry Fork Loop is in the San Juan National Forest, the access road and parking lot are in the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area. The trailhead is open to the public April 16 through Nov. 30.

Dry Fork Trail

A simple wooden sign announces the Dry Fork Trail, a roll-bar ramp crosses the cattle guard, a weathered red fence swings open for hikers, and the trail wanders off toward Silver Mountain in the La Plata range. The trailhead is classic American West.

The lowest point on this hike is the parking lot, elevation 7,380 feet. You will go uphill at the front end of the hike no matter how you wrap it, but the trail’s undulating nature makes it about as easy as a climb gets.

The trail bears northwest along a tributary of the Dry Fork of Lightner Creek. Red twigged willow and a pretty grove of golden aspen sip from the stream. Gambel oaks cloaked in the fiery, flaming hues of fall contrast with the deep forest green of ponderosa pines rolling up from the drainage.

Hoffeins Connection Trail

At 0.8 mile, reach the junction with Hoffeins Connection Trail. While there is a sign for the Dry Fork Trail which continues on, there isn’t one for the Hoffeins 1.3-mile link trail. Mountain bikers conventionally ride the loop clockwise. Therefore, walkers and runners are advised to turn right so they have a heads up as bikes approach. Openings in the trees afford nice views of North Perins Peak.

Forester Tesche rides his bike through the flames of autumn while Walnut bounds for joy on the Dry Fork Loop where off-leash dogs are allowed.

Colorado Trail Reach the junction with the Colorado Trail at 2.1 miles, elevation 8,000 feet. Turn right for the 0.2 mile spur to Gudy’s Rest. For thru-hikers on the 486-mile, cross-state trek, Gudy’s Rest located four miles from trail’s end is a celebratory place. A thick plank bench looks out over Junction Creek canyon, the west slopes of Barnes Mountain and Durango.

A wooden plaque pays tribute to Gudy Gaskill, the genius and tireless champion of the Colorado Trail. Durango’s Trails 2000 carries on Gudy’s legacy. The trail advocacy organization builds and maintains an ever-growing vast network of trails in the region. In addition to their Colorado Trail upkeep, they are the guardians for every foot of trail on the Dry Fork Loop.

Return to the Hoffeins junction and turn right. I have seen both bear and cougar tracks imprinted on the soft dirt path. While these creatures will likely remain hidden, you will definitely keep company with magnificent trailside ponderosas.

Pass by a fenceline and then cross a tributary of Dry Fork. Colorado blue spruce, Douglas fir and aspen are sheltered in the drainage. The track bears south for a short distance. Look afar to Animas City Mountain and the Missionary Ridge Rockfall.

The treadway rounds a southeast ridge and then holds to the contour west-bound for a mile. Top out at elevation 8,660 feet. You can practically reach out and touch Silver Mountain only four miles away as the crow flies. Big boulders bounding the path add interest while descending to Deep Creek, a principal tributary of Lightner Creek.

Dry Fork Trail, back to the trailhead

Denver anyone? At 5.1 miles, after a mere 2.6 miles on the Colorado Trail, this loop hangs a left on the Dry Fork Trail. There are a bevy of old roads and accompanying signs to keep you aimed in the right direction. At 8.3 miles, watch for the now familiar junction with Hoffeins Connection. Make a hard right, staying on the Dry Fork Trail. If you miss the turn you’ll find yourself on a Möbius strip.

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

Travel basics

Dry Gulch Trail

Travel to Dry Gulch Trailhead in Rockridge:

From Main Avenue and 25th Street, go west. Pass Miller Middle School and, in two blocks, turn left on Clovis Drive. Go up the hill and enter Rockridge. Drive just under a mile and turn right on Tanglewood Drive. Cross a small bridge and take an immediate left. The parking area is on the right.

Distance and Elevation Gain Roundtrip:

8 miles; 1,250 feet of climbing

Total Time:

3 to 4½ hours

Difficulty for both hikes:

Trail; navigation easy; no exposure

Winter Closure, Dec. 1 through July 31:

The Dry Gulch Trail is open for only four months of the year, August through November, because it is in the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area, managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Public access is prohibited during the closure period to protect wintering big game and spring-nesting peregrine falcons. No motorized vehicles or mountain bikes. Dogs must be on leash.

Dry Fork Loop

Travel to Dry Fork Loop Trailhead:

Start measuring from the U.S. Highway 550/160 intersection in Durango. Travel 3.3 miles on U.S. 160 West and turn right on Lightner Creek Road, La Plata County Road 207. At 4.3 miles, turn right onto Dry Fork Road, County Road 208, a graded dirt road suitable for all vehicles. Take the right fork at 6.3 miles. At 7.1 miles, a sign for Hoffeins Connection Trail directs left into a large dirt lot.

Distance and Elevation:

9.1 miles, 1,500 feet of elevation gain

Total Time:

3 to 5 hours

Winter Closure:

Dec. 1 through April 15

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