Monday, December 19, 2011

2011 - June 14th - Grand Mesa In Spring, Plateau Creek & Colorado River (Both At Flood Stage)

After spending a lot of days off in the lower canyons, the frozen Grand Mesa seemed locked away in the clouds for most of the spring.  I did want to get up and do a bit of exploring, though.  As late spring pressed on, the rivers and streams began to fill with late season snow-melt, which had until then, been withheld. 

I spent the previous "weekend" storm chasing out east, so I was looking for a different kind of adventure.  I hit the road after dinner and made my way for Grand Mesa, first following the twisting turns of I-70 in the De Beque Canyon and then those of Colorado 65 in the canyon carved by Plateau Creek. 

I had only taken the highway past the small town of Mesa, Colorado on one previous occasion and knew I'd find the scenery to be quite different on this second trip.  After the turnoff to the area's closest ski resort, Powderhorn, the highway switches back up the north face of Grand Mesa.  I was keeping my eyes open for a possible waterfall in the area since I had heard rumor of one visible from the highway, but I wasn't able to locate it.

As the road really starts to pick up elevation, drivers get their first terrific view after rounding Spruce Point...

The view down from the highway just "uphill" from Spruce Point.

Of course, it helped that the evening light absolutely lit up the unbelievably green north side of the mesa.  The view really was spectacular.

The road levels off a bit after Spruce Point and winds through the forest and ponds of Mesa Lakes.  Even in mid-June, the Aspen were just beginning to leaf-up.  Piles of snow still remained in shadowed areas and blocked turnouts to picnic areas and campgrounds. 

Looking through the aspen to Mesa Lake.

I stopped occasionally for photos, but continued on up the highway.  The highway holds one more steep switchback up the basaltic edge of Grand Mesa's cap rock.  As I reached the top, I was greeted with yet another incredible view from Skyway Point. 

Water Dog Reservoir from Skyway Point. 

Once atop the mesa, the highway levels out and it is incredibly flat.  The drive across the top however is relatively short and can be accomplished in a matter of minutes.  Then, the road descends down the south face of the mesa.  Much to my surprise, I found the first lake (Island Lake) on the south side of the mesa to be completely frozen (while the lakes on the north face were not!).  Don't ask me to explain that.

The light was getting low and I didn't have a lot of time to explore, so I turned around shortly after dipping a little south.  I noticed that when looking to the east-southeast, the fullish moon had just appeared brightly over the West Elk Mountains. 

Upon returning to the top of the mesa, I spotted a cascade to my right and less than a quarter mile off the road.  I decided that I could probably reach it even though I was wearing shorts and sneakers (highs in the valley were in the 80s that day)... and even though I would have to cross a snow field to get there.

So, I started walking.  For the most part, I was able to stand atop the hard, frozen crust of the snow.  Occasionally, I would break through.  The snow was about a foot deep in most places... and moreso in others.  For example, several hidden waterways crossed under the snow, unbeknownst to me.  I found them quite easily and on several occasions, found myself half-thigh in unbelievably cold slush.

Eventually, after zig-zagging to a couple of rocky outcrops, I reached spitting distance of the cascade... which I then realized to be the outlet of a reservoir.  That's no cascade, it's a spillway.  (Star Wars, anyone?)

I moved around the area looking for a good shot and successfully breaking through the snow several times to find very cold pools of water.

The pussy willow lining the outlet.

Eventually, I became cold and returned to my vehicle.  Don't worry, I fell through the ice several more times on the way back. 
The distant spillway and outlet; headwaters for Kannah Creek.

Another reservoir (Grand Mesa Reservoir #9, I believe) on the west side of the highway.

As the sun set, the sky lit up for a few moments with tremendous color...

I was marveling at how it was so warm in the valley and I had my heat on "floor", full-blast as I hit the highway once again.  In the fading light, I stopped at Skyway Point once again for shots of the dramatic dusk.

Light reflecting off of Rapid Creek Reservoir .

Light had faded by the time I reached the Powderhorn turnoff and at that point, I was content to head on home.

However, as I reached the canyon carved by Plateau Creek, I couldn't help but notice how bright the moon was and how well the flood-stage creek was illuminated.  Thus began another phase of my expedition. 

Unfortunately, since the canyon is pretty tight, there wasn't much in the way of good access to the "creek" in photogenic places.  I had to do a lot of guard-rail hopping and bushwhacking to get to the water.  The water, swollen from its banks also did a good job of flowing through the bank-side vegetation, which further hampered access.   I did try my best. 

I call it "the wave"

While photographing the canyon from the road, a county sheriff's deputy pulled up with lights on, questioned what I was doing and then moved on. 

I decided to move on as well.  My legs were starting to get itchy for whatever reason.  But since I was in a picture-taking mode, I also tried to stop alongside the flood-swollen Colorado River in the De Beque Canyon as well.  I found a good place to pull off at the first Palisade exit, before the river departs the canyon.  The canyon itself was illuminated by the moon with the water lit from the highway interchange lights. 

I was having fun taking pictures, but my legs were driving me absolutely crazy and my eyes were beginning to swell also.  To this day, I'm not exactly sure what was bothering my allergies, but I would wager it was either a mold in the snow that I had been tromping through or the grass alongside Plateau Creek. 

I had allergy tests done a few years back that showed an allergy to "redtop" grass.  I've never really had any problems with "hay fever" and my strongest allergic reactions have always been to cats.  The test showed I was more allergic to this type of grass than to cats.  But I find that it grows all over and I've never had much of a problem, so who knows. 

I did head across the river in Palisade to get a late-night shot of ol' Mount Garfield once before heading home, however.  It's such a stoic monument.