October 20, 2020 · Collegiate Peaks Wilderness
The hike along the Bowmen Creek in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness inside the Gunnison National Forest is described as easy. That is true, for the first 1.3 miles of the trail, after that it is a difficult trail and requires GPS. The trail or what would passes as a trail is very lightly traveled and is an exercise in finding and following game trails until the fade out. After reviewing my step-by-step GPS tracks, there was not much deviation from the documented trail. However, it is not really a trail and requires a lot of bushwhacking through knee-high to well over six feet tall Willow shrubs.
The trailhead for Bowmen Creek is deep inside the Taylor Park Reservoir Recreation Area. It is huge recreation area, and during the Summer it is overrun with quads and is like a go-kart racetrack. However, at this time of year, the campgrounds had closed the week before and this trek was on a weekday. As such, there was nobody in the recreation area. When there is nobody in this area, the recreation area is very pretty; it is a long, wide, and flat valley floor.
It was a crystal-clear day and driving to the trailhead along the dirt road, I glanced down at the outside temperature at about 8am, with the clear blue sky, it was a deceptively cold 12 degrees outside. By the time I got to the trailhead, the temperature had doubled, a real heatwave. I was the only one at the trailhead, and since there was nobody in the recreation area, it was so peaceful at the trailhead, it could have been a great day just to sit in a chair here and soak up the sun.
The elevation gain of the trail is easily absorbed over the distance of the trail and there are very view noticeable elevation gains sections along the trail, or more aptly, along the patchwork of game trails. The trail is muddy, even for late October. However, at this time of the morning much of the mud is frozen, but not solid. Postholing in ankle and knee-deep mud was a common occurrence throughout the trek. I had new Summer boots for this trek, so what better way to break them in.
The sky was clear and only a noticeably light breeze. Up through the first 1.3 miles of the trail, it is open and airy and would be a great Summer short hike. At mile 1.3 the trail enters tall and thick stands of conifers and little sunlight makes its way through the thick canopy and is noticeably colder along this stretch. After exiting the thick conifers, there are patches of snow to remind you that it is late October and Winter is coming.
At this point there is a river crossing and an open view of what the day holds ahead, miles and miles of bushwhacking through winterized Willow shrubs, meaning they have shed their leaves and the branches are hard and sharp. The documented trail suggests staying to the East of the river; however, I did that on the return and that is not correct. There is nothing that resembles a trail on the East side of the River. The West side of the river has more sun, and this is where the task starts of finding and following game trails. Sometimes the game trails are easy to locate and follow. Other times they meander through the Willow shrubs.
It is confusing from here on to the Bowmen Creek Pass, when a game trail fades out, you look over the valley and on the other side of the river is something that looks like the documented trail. Bushwhacking through the shrubs and crossing the river to connect with what looked like the trail on the other side of the river turned out to be another game trail that faded out shortly after picking it up. This happened several times along the creek. As a result, I crossed the river several times and bushwhacked through exceptionally dense shrubs.
The last time I crossed the river back over to the West side, I came upon a small clearing just before a small pitch an noticed bones, they were a femur and a neck bone; based on the size they were probably from an Elk. Before coming to that conclusion, I joked with myself that they were probably from the last hiker that attempted this trek. About 20 minutes later I came across the other part of the animal, a sunbaked jaw bone.
All along this trail, I was grateful for the fantastic weather, a clear blue sky and virtually no wind. The original plan was to trek to Bowmen Creek Pass and skirt along the Northern boundary of Gunnison Forest over to Tellurium Lake or Ptarmigan Lake - depending on which map you look at. However, after reaching the basin just below Bowmen Creek Pass and surveying the area, the only way to the pass was bushwhacking through more shrubs. Having had my fill of bushwhacking and knowing I would have to do it all again on the way out. I opted for lunch just below Bowmen Creek Pass. It was a beautiful day and so peaceful. Oddly, where I chose to have lunch, I noticed several more animal bones. It appears something else thought this was a good place for lunch as well.
The way back out was just as hard and complicated as the way in. However, I did try to pick up the trail on the last river crossing and follow it. That was a mistake, I ended up in an area of the forest that most people never see. The area was full of moss-covered downed trees and moss-covered peat bogs. Based on the animal tracks in the peat, everybody, two-legged and four-legged had a difficult time in this area.
Beyond the first 1.3 miles of the trail, this is an exceptionally difficult trail. I can easily see how someone could get lost and require a Search & Rescue event if they did not have a GPS with them. It's difficult with a GPS. Thankfully, the weather was perfect for this mid-week trek that turned out to be 10.3 miles roundtrip. I'm glad I did as much of this trek as I did, I feel I gained a lot of valuable experience.