Rio Grande Headwaters

By Eilene Lyon

South of the South Fork of the Rio Grande that flows down from Wolf Creek Pass, the campers (many of them hunters) were thick as late-summer flies. We spent one night on Park Creek as a waypoint between the Conejos River (two nights) and the Rio Grande headwaters, west of Creede, Colorado. For some reason, the highway department insists on marking all the river crossings with signs reading “Rio Grande River.” Argh!

Sterling enjoys a swim in the Conejos River south of Platoro.

The campgrounds in this area were virtually deserted, just a week past Labor Day. We considered the River Hill Campground (very nice and only two spaces taken – one the camp host). But we prefer dispersed sites, having two dogs with us. The Sentry, Kyra, is recovering from surgery to her Achille’s tendon. We should have taken her to a different doctor, but that’s water under the bridge.

The recovery, combined with earlier back injuries, has left her with little control of her hind end. She stumbles and lands on her rear often. But she’s still enthusiastic about exploring – and guarding camp, protecting us from the vicious chipmunks and deer. Sterling is a happy camper, period.

Sterling and Kyra explore our campsite at the Rio Grande Reservoir in the waning light of day.

There was only one good campsite along the north side of the Rio Grande Reservoir – we had this entire body of water to ourselves. The water is low, not from drought, but because there is major reconstruction underway at the dam, built originally in 1912. The new spillways will be controlled remotely by computer.

As the daylight began to fade, I sat on my rocky perch above the remaining man-made puddle and observed its lifelessness. All was still and quiet except the tumble of water from one of the many feeders that create the Rio Grande in these alpine and sub-alpine highlands.

View of the low-water in the reservoir and feeder stream from our campsite.

Then, to dispel my erroneous assumption, a dozen Canada geese honked their way to a landing at water’s edge on the opposite shore. Five parked themselves at the stream outlet while the other seven went for a dinner cruise across the placid reservoir.

A lone duck plowed a furrow, head submerged as she swam. And a single fish pierced the veil, sending concentric folds across the silky surface. Sandpipers began twittering on the now-exposed mud banks. It wasn’t lifeless, but not teeming, either.

Downstream at the shallower Road Canyon impoundments, ducks and fish enjoy the pea-green algal soup around the fringes, and anglers take up their futile positions nearby. Other wildlife spotted in the vicinity included a juvenile golden eagle perched on a rock and a nursery of bighorn sheep (ewes and suckling lambs).

Smattering of bighorn sheep near the Road Canyon reservoir along the Rio Grande.

Opposite our camp, the forest appeared to be a half-dead mosaic of beetle-killed spruce and live aspen. On our way upriver, we passed an extensive burned area. But these are not dead, damaged, or even unnatural landscapes. Harder to see are the live spruce – some two-feet tall and decades old – waiting to take their place in the canopy.

The burns harbor bird species found most abundantly there than in any other habitat. Why? Because burned trees are manna to beetle larvae and this means abundant bird food. The trees also provide cavity nests and a dearth of predators.

Burn area along the Rio Grande near Creede, Colorado.

We took a hike near Platoro, in the South San Juan Wilderness, in a beetle-kill zone. Even this late in the season, the wildflowers were guilty of flagrant and wanton abandon. As we traversed the switchbacks, climbing to Bear Lake, we barely noticed the dead spruce. We were too busy stuffing our faces with juicy, wild strawberries. The dusky grouse startled us, first by hurtling from the shrubbery, later by leading us down the trail, hesitant to scatter at our appearance.

The Putterer at Bear Lake in the South San Juan Wilderness.
Fireweed at Bear Lake.

There was not another (human) soul on the entire trail. No other cars at the trailhead. Two days since the last name in the register. Contrast that to the Ice Lakes trail near Silverton. It’s become such an overused track that the San Juan Mountains Association moved in a mobile visitor information center for the summer. Sheeple flock to the same place as everyone else, instead of seeking out the untrammeled beauty all over these southern Rocky Mountains.

Abundant late-season wildflowers, including these crazy native thistles, distract you from the dead spruce trees.

Back at our camp on the reservoir, there was not another person for miles, save for an occasional vehicle traversing from one end to the other. A couple deer, after spotting us, come closer to check out our camp, despite the dogs. The mutts were obediently (for a change) sitting quietly near us, staring back at the “intruders.” Chasing wildlife, particularly big game species (i.e. squirrels and prairie dogs don’t count), is a shooting offense in these parts.

We took Kyra and Sterling on a short hike into the Weminuche Wilderness, then a little day trip up to Lake City for lunch. Along the way, we stopped to help a mountain biker doing the Colorado Trail, who turned out to be from Durango, too.

View of the Rio Grande Headwaters from Highway 149 on the way to Lake City.
North Clear Creek Falls, at over 100 feet high, are a spectacular view, just 1/2 mile off Highway 149.

After packing up camp on our last day, we pulled into the Deep Creek trailhead that we had checked out the previous day for a planned mountain bike ride. As then, no one else at the trailhead, despite its proximity to Creede’s “suburbs.” We had a grand ride and saw only one other couple hiking the trail as we headed back to the truck.

At the Deep Creek trailhead is a grave and memorial to the children who died on the western trails in the 19th century. The marker was placed by the SLV 4 Wheeler Club.

If you like exploring the mountains without the crowds, the best thing is to get a state gazetteer and follow your nose. There are tons of places to see, hike, bike, etc. without a lot of people around. The visitor center in South Fork is a wealth of information, too.

In this part of the state, OHVs seem to be the preferred mode of travel, so hiking/biking trails go wanting for company. Check them out!

Feature image: Sunrise at the Rio Grande Reservoir, looking west. (E. Lyon 2019)

Note: I am on vacation for the next month or so. I do have a few posts scheduled while I’m gone, but will have only sporadic internet service.

38 thoughts on “Rio Grande Headwaters

Add yours

  1. Such a beautiful area to explore. I’m not accustomed to seeing so much land without people on it, somewhere in view. Your photos are a nice respite from that reality. Thanks for sharing them and your story. Lovely.


  2. I’m going to have to return to see the photos as for some reason, they’re not showing. (It’s true for my site too and a WordPress happiness engineer is looking into it for me). But even with no pics your words are marvelous. The image they paint for me is quite lovely. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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