Mount Gunnison was calling as we three 13 year old boys laid our plans and set out on our next Colorado back country adventure. We had studied our Forest Service map and convinced our parents that we knew what we were doing. It seemed fairly straightforward. We would follow the Forest Service trail about a mile toward Minnesota Pass from Beaver Reservoir up the East Fork of Minnesota Creek. To get there you headed southeast from Paonia, Colorado following Minnesota Creek along road 710. Paonia, Colorado, was a quiet little town about 25 miles up in the mountains from Delta, Colorado following highway 92 and 133. Growing up in the area I saw Paonia valley as a Shangri-La. The mountain ringed valley provided a glorious abundance of apples, peaches, cherries, plums, and pears, and the 4th of July was a community celebration called “Cherry Days”.
Completing the Shangri-La illusion, southeast of Paonia, Mount Lamborn and Landsend Peak form an amazingly close mountainous backdrop for the town. East of Lamborn, above Minnesota Creek, Mount Gunnison stands tall, remote and seemingly inaccessible. We three boys meant to change that perspective, taking on the peak, or at least taking a good shot at it. Ron, Larry and I laid out our provisions across the living room floor, checking our lists and divying up the loads accordingly. Larry with his weight training had the dubious honor of the heaviest pack load. Ron and I split the remaining supplies.
Our adventure forty some years ago was outfitted in a pre-modern camping gear era – at least in our lives. My Boy Scout backpack was an open bag into which everything was piled, our tent a piece of tarp strung between two trees. And my bedding – a couple of wool blankets that Mom thought couldn’t get too badly damaged. Interesting the way the world and our expectations change over time.
My folks dropped us off up at the Beaver Reservoir dam, and the adventure began. We excitedly covered the first mile of the trail quickly. Around a mile, a side trail turns sharp left leading around the side of Mount Gunnison, over to Coal Creek on the other side. That was not for us though. It appeared on the map that you could head directly east at that juncture, following HooDoo Creek as it led up a draw toward the summit of Mount Gunnison. You could see the beginnings of a trail heading up that direction – the trail we chose to follow.
The excitement of exploration drove us onward, upward through aspen groves on the lower flanks of Mount Gunnison. Always keeping HooDoo Creek within sight to our left, we followed that narrow, windy trail through the increasingly dense brush. It became apparent that the “trail” we were following was probably a game trail going nowhere in particular. Hitting multiple forks on the path, within an hour of leaving the main Minnesota Pass Trail our trail disappeared completely. Undeterred, we struggled onward and upward through dense brush for another hour or so. The relatively open aspen grove transitioned into dense pine forest, the trek becoming even more challenging as dissension arose within the ranks. It was unclear that there was any easy route through the timber, or which way to go, and some were questioning if we were – lost.
Lost? How could we possibly be lost? Three 13 year old boys way off trail, bumbling around in dense forests on the flanks of Mount Gunnison in the West Elk Wilderness Area – lost – it’s possible. Ron climbed a taller pine in the forest to see if he could make out where we were. It was obvious where we were – in the middle of a deep pine forest somewhere on the side of the mountain.
We seldom apply – lost – to our adventures. Afterall, we spent days and days out exploring the mountains, creeks and draws throughout the whole Paonia valley. As long as we could hear HooDoo Creek cascading down the draw to our north, we hadn’t strayed far from it. We knew we could follow it down to the East Fork of Minnesota Creek and our main trail out.
But the upward trek toward the summit of Mount Gunnison was questionable. The journey became bushwhacking, and the day was waning. So, we halted our upward struggle, worked our way across to HooDoo Creek, and found a wonderful spot on the creek bank under the tall pines to pitch camp.
The tarp strung between trees, the three of us jockeyed for which rock we were going to be sleeping on underneath it. With a fire in the fire ring, we whipped up standard gourmet camp fare – Lipton chicken noodle soup – accompanied by excellent shoestring potatoes and home made cookies. Following rousing camping songs, where we learned that Larry had a budding career in the bluegrass industry, we settled in for a memorable night in the woods.
The following morning dawned cold and rainy. Yes, a little rain into the “tent” during the night, soaked the three of us to the skin. We struck camp early and waded through dripping wet brush, plodding back down from the lower ridges of Mount Gunnison, continuing singing those same great tunes we shared around the campfire. Maybe we understood why there was no trail straight up next to HooDoo Creek, leading to the top of Mount Gunnison. “Wouldn’t it be great if there were a trail up there?” we laughed, enjoying the view of the peak as we waited at Beaver Reservoir for our ride.
Reflecting back forty-some years on that wonderful adventure, I probably wouldn’t change a thing, except for the gear. And now that I’ve found that I can begin and end that journey in the comfort of nearby motel accommodations in either Cedaredge or Delta found at: http://www.montanaadventure.com/out/state/us-co.html I am excited to re-explore that wonderful area.