Appreciating a different perspective on adventure in the Four Corners
The Colorado Plateau is home to some of the country’s most superlative features. Be it the tallest, longest, highest or oldest, adventure seekers have limitless opportunities to explore. While beauty can be found dispersed out our back doors, some of the most spectacular adventures are best appreciated with some space between you and the crowds.
While large-scale gatherings are avoided during the COVID-19 pandemic, these adventures across the region offer explorers the opportunity to take a step back – away from crowds – to take in nature’s scale and majesty.
Colorado’s Wild Mustangs
It’s easy to conjure up images of horses when you think of Colorado’s rich history. Remnants of the state’s storied Wild West, wild horses still roam freely in the southwest corner of the state. Maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), four herd management areas (HMA) range over 400,000 acres in southwest Colorado.
While these BLM areas will require a bit of effort to reach, this most wild adventure is absolutely worth it. The Spring Creek Basin HMA, located in Disappointment Valley between Norwood and Dove Creek, provides wild mustangs nearly 22,000 acres to run free. According to the BLM, “legend says that in the early 1900s, a Montana rancher came to Disappointment Valley with a herd of stolen horses that he raised to sell to the U.S. Cavalry and other groups. When the law began to close in on him, he gathered some of his horses and quickly left the area. Local ranchers managed the remaining horses by culling undesirable horses and adding their own stock, and now the BLM manages the herd under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.”
Despite the name of the valley they roam, this experience doesn’t disappoint! While wild horses may not drag you away, they will certainly beckon you back. From inner peace seekers to photography junkies, the wild mustangs provide a visual wonderland and a spiritual experience when viewed in their natural splendor.
Arizona’s Biggest Footprints
Dinosaur tracks are frequently a roadside attraction, but if you truly want to walk in the footsteps of these giants you need to get off the beaten path, away from the museums and crowds, and step back into time onto the Moenkopi Dinosaur Tracks. Located just west of Tuba City on the Navajo Nation (look for a primitive hand-painted sign on the side of Highway 160), the trail offers hikers to truly follow in some giant footsteps!
More of a walking experience than a true hike, this 30-minute stroll along the sandstone allows adventure seekers to walk in footprints 200 million years old. You’ll also see fossils, including turtle eggs, and some purported dinosaur poop await!
Colorado’s Tallest Trees
From most wild to the tallest, Colorado is home to many of Mother Nature’s extremes. If towering trees pique your interest, head about 20 miles north of Durango to the Hermosa Creek Drainage where you can find the canopy of three of the state’s tallest trees. Also known as “champion trees,” these old giants provide perspective for how small we truly are amidst the natural world.
Sadly, two of the largest trees in the Hermosa Creek Drainages trees were lost in the 416 fire. The most notable is the “Outfitter Tree,” a Douglas Fir that had previously been certified as the largest of its species in the state. It towered over 163 feet and had a circumference of 17 feet.
Fortunately, three champion trees survived, including a 181-foot tall blue spruce with a circumference of 11 feet. Hikers can find this soaring giant near the trailhead near Hermosa.
The other two require a hike. About a mile in from the trailhead, hikers will find a 148-foot champion ponderosa pine with a circumference of 12 feet. About three-quarters of a mile further stands the champion Southwestern white pine. A tree unique to the region, white pine stands a towering 109 feet tall with a 9-foot circumference. These old giants are impressive and well worth the effort to see.
Utah’s Oldest Rocky Mountain Juniper Tree “Anywhere”
Estimated at over 1,500 years old, a Rocky Mountain juniper tree located in Utah’s Logan Canyon in the Cache National Forest is believed to be the oldest living tree of its species. Standing firm about 5 miles up the 11-mile Jardine Juniper Trail, the Old Jardine Juniper reaches over 40 feet and has a 23-foot circumference. The reward for ascending more than 2,000 feet to find the gnarled and weathered tree is a peaceful experience along an uncrowded trail.
The tree stands as a stark image against the ridgeline and canyon below, having survived everything Mother Nature and multiple civilizations have thrown its way. The ancient juniper stands as a wonderful reminder that perseverance is beautiful and that the stories embedded in one old tree can make a difference thousands of years later.
Crested Butte’s Most Spectacular Display of Wildflowers
If you have an appreciation for wildflowers, head to Crested Butte this summer for the most spectacular display of wildflowers. Crested Butte is the “Official Wildflower Capital of Colorado” for good reason: the mountains come alive in summer with a palate of colors. Numerous loop hikes await for all skill levels, providing an unrivaled visual experience not to be missed.
The wildflowers are worth a visit with or without a festival, but Crested Butte has an annual festival devoted to the wildflowers. In its 34th year, the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival is currently scheduled for July 11-19. The annual tradition offers a variety of wildflower-based programs, from guided hikes and art workshops to photography and culinary experiences. As of this writing the festival was delayed due to COVID-19 concerns but still a go. For updates and to purchase tickets visit www.crestedbuttewildflowerfestival.com.
Colorado’s Tallest Waterfalls
While Bridal Veil Falls near Telluride has the record as Colorado’s tallest free-falling waterfall, dropping 365 feet, deep in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains are what is believed to be the two tallest cascading waterfalls. According to the World Waterfall Database, the West Fork Chama Falls and Banded Falls each cascade an approximate 700 feet from a hanging basin above the headwaters of the East Fork of the Chama River.
The Database reports 10 other falls within a 5-mile radius, making this area a waterfall-viewing paradise for hikers and backcountry enthusiasts. Reaching the falls requires some effort. The area is not heavily trafficked and the steep trails are a bit tricky to find. The reward for your effort is an unparalleled nature at its finest.
Access the falls via the West Fork Rio Chama Trail, beginning at Forest Trail 738 and ending at the junction of Trail 741. To find the trail, the U.S Forest Service recommends traveling from Chama, New Mexico, north on Highway 17 to the Chama River Road 121. Turn left onto Road 121 and travel north about 6 miles to the Rio Grande National Forest boundary where you take the left fork and travel about one mile to the trailhead. On the hike, Trail 740 branches off Trail 738 about two miles north of the trailhead.
In this time of social distancing, perhaps there is no better time to reflect on space and no better place than the middle of nowhere to realize that the empty void is actually full when you stand amidst wild horses, the tallest or oldest trees, in the footsteps of giants and at the base of a tall waterfall.
JENNY JOHNSTON is an outdoor writer in Durango, Colorado.