100 Miles Through the Sangre de Cristo

This blog post originally appeared on our Rockies Expeditions blog on August 12th. Our 2013 Spine of the Rockies Expedition is investigating Large Landscape Conservation through methods of visual and social media while connecting to the Rocky Mountain Region’s strong ties to outdoor recreation and wild spaces. For more on the expedition, visit: www.RockiesExpeditions.org

Our feet move in syncopation over this narrowly defined path.  Each step feels labored as we carry our heavy packs, freshly stocked with rations for the week.  The trail gradually continues up through the drainage corridor.  Our view becomes socked in as aspens and cottonwoods obscure the mountains above.

The Sangre de Cristo mountains are a symbolic Colorado range.  Rising up to 14,000 foot peaks with jagged dramatic vistas, these thin giants seem to slice the bluebird morning apart.  The range runs from north to south and defines the eastern border of the San Luis Valley.  This large protected conservation area has created a major core of habitat space for the wildlife of southern Colorado, providing a continuous spine of  protected public and private lands all the way to New Mexico.



As we roll into camp for the night so does the weather.  Colorado’s mountain weather practically guaranteed us a small rain event preceding every evening.  The clouds blow in quick and we are forced to dig out heavier layers from the bottom of our packs.  Warmed and content, the next step is to pull out and stake down the minimal rain fly that serves as protection for the rest of our gear.  The shelter goes up just in time as the clouds begin to pepper our belongings with rain.

The morning greets us with sunshine and a warm breeze.  Last night’s moisture has dried into the pine duff and left the understory with a sweet dank smell.  Allowing some time for our gear to dry out in the sun we look over the map and eye out possible destinations.  A high alpine lake seems to be the most desirable location.  Not only does this feature offer fresh water for our consumption but these unique life zones host populations of native cutthroat trout.  This keystone species provides food for over 40 bird and mammal species in the larger Rockies ecosystem.



The day wears on as we climb above tree line and pop out over the ridge just to cruise downwards into the next drainage.  The sunshine has been replaced with clouds that lead to a drizzly descent.  We scurry off the ridge to find that the end of our day rewards us with the gem that is Rito Alto Lake.

Colorado boasts an array of quality trout fishing.  From productive rivers to pristine alpine lakes, the fishing provides outdoorsmen with another reason to take a backcountry trip.  On this Sangre de Cristo trip, I am going after the Greenback cutthroat trout.  I wade out barefoot through the increasingly deep and cold mud.  I walk slowly but with purpose.  Too fast and I will spoil the fishing, too careless and I will end up covered much deeper than just my ankles.  We have been in the mountains for a few nights now and Rito Alto Lake has proved to be teeming with life.

I look around the clear shallow water and see evidence that I am not the first to wade out into the lake.  I can make out defined ungulate tracks, probably from an elk or mule deer watering.  Then I see bigger paw prints shaped a little more like the ones I am leaving behind.  These I attribute to a black bear, he was probably in pursuit of the same prey as I currently find myself.

The top of the water flickers and my line pulls tight.  I gently pull up and keep the tension in the line as I bring the rod end closer into my body.  I feel the trout kick as it tries to pull away demanding to be released.  This Greenback cutthroat trout has probably never seen an artificial fly before and must be surprised to find what looked like a quick meal to be a long delay.  I wet my hand and clasp behind its gills removing the fly from its upper lip.  As I adjust my grip, I feel its body tense preparing for another big kick in hopes of ending up back in the water.  Seeing the variation of light green tones contrasted with a dramatic red underside symbolizes the raw wilderness of Colorado.  Although significantly altered by anthropogenic influences, these areas and their inhabitants persist.

The trip takes us up and over the slender Sangre de Cristo range.  These high altitude areas are as fragile as they are beautiful.  Here the trail becomes less defined and snow has reappeared without regard to the season.  I gaze up at the pass that is today’s main objective.  It seems so tall and distant.  Puzzled by the quick movement of the elk, I can only ponder the ground that I could cover if I could move with such effortless gallops.  They crossed an area, that may take me the better part of an hour, in as little as ten minutes.  This experience makes it apparent why these animals need such large landscapes to interact with and navigate.  They do not see alpine passes and trails the same way that we do.



Descending from the bony ridges of the Sangre de Cristo range, we enter Crestone revived and excited for the next leg of the journey.  The Great Sand Dunes National Park extends from roughly south Crestone city limits till the northern limits of Blanca.  Ready to stretch our legs on some flat ground, we remain enthusiastic and depart from Liberty gate.  We start off slowly as we walk across the constantly shifting sands.

Great Sand Dunes National park is a unique pocket of Colorado.  Following orogenic mountain forming events, the dune sand was blown from all over the greater San Luis Valley.  Our route keeps us on the western side of the dunes.  We are afforded a mystical backdrop that stays with us for the majority of our walk.  While taking a quick break for water, I even catch a quick glimpse of a coyote we probably woke up from a break of his own.


Our exploration through the greater San Luis Valley traverse provided a pleasing and reassuring experience.  On paper, the range and valley appears colored with layers of agency protection promising conservation.  On the ground, the ecosystem seems to be responding with healthy numbers of wildlife.  The SLV stakeholders have managed and continue to manage land agreements that preserve this core as wild.  The mountains and valleys hold abundant life and the human inhabitants benefit from well conserved watersheds and ecosystems.  Stakeholder recognition of what the landscape can provide for the community has made them land and resource rich.

Pat Hughes is a field researcher with the State of the Rockies Project. 

Photos  ©David Spiegel

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