If you follow this blog you may remember that in March I was driving opera props from Baltimore to Milwaukee, where the scenery was being built. That show, rescheduled due to COVID-19, is set to open in the little Colorado town of Mancos in October. Having spent a week doing some laid back hiking on the Door Peninsula in northern Wisconsin, Lisa and I rented a truck and headed to Milwaukee to pick up and drive the finished scenery to Colorado. Three days later, we were settled in a three-room, Civilian Conservation Corps cabin on the East Mancos River. Life was good, and when we didn’t have to work, Lisa and I were looking to hike. Mancos, Colorado is only about 15 miles from Mesa Verde National Park, but the trail that I wanted to hike at MVNP was closed. Box Canyon Trail in the nearby San Juan National Forest was recommended by Lisa’s colleague, a rancher in the Mancos Valley, so at the first opportunity we headed there.
We arrived at the trailhead near the Transfer Campground at 11:15am. The day was sunny and bright, with a smattering of fluffy, white clouds floating through an azure sky. A few steps away was the West Mancos Overlook, and we gazed out over Box Canyon toward Mount Hesperus and the Sharkstooth. Hesperus, the tallest peak in the La Plata Mountains, tops out at 13,237 feet and is called “Dibé Ntsaa” by the Dine’ (Navajo); it is one of their four sacred mountains and marks the northern boundary of their homeland. The Navajo believed Hesperus to be tied to the ground by a rainbow. Sharkstooth is smaller and shaped like a … well, you know. Two years prior Lisa and I (along with her rancher friend) hiked to Sharkstooth pass. I chronicled that trek here.
That same local friend had expressed skepticism about the Rim Trail, the path that would take us the mile from the overlook to the Box Canyon descent. We ignored his cynicism; the descent alone was only about a mile and we wanted more steps. We took the first of those steps down a trail that quickly closed in around us and became a tunnel of gambel oak. It wasn’t overgrown, just close, and we wondered if we would regret eschewing a local’s advice. Moments later, the trail opened up and treated us to sweeping view of the canyon and all of its charms.
From that point on, the Rim Trail was a gently rolling picture show of stellar canyon views. Occasionally we diverted from the trail to clamber down to a rocky outcrop for a less obstructed view over the valley. The canyon walls were steep, and sometimes these crags hovered fifty or more feet above the tangle of brush below. We passed through two gates along the rim, the second of which was just before the junction with 617, the Box Canyon Trail.
We stepped into a dusty clearing. The Rim Trail continued ahead to the southwest, but we turned south to begin our descent. Yellow mule’s ears, pink roses, and lavender geraniums greeted us as we began to lose altitude. The trail switched back down the west canyon wall amid stands of tall, straight aspens, gambel oak, and scruffy pine. The sun shone brilliantly from a now nearly cloudless sky. The temperature was in the low eighties and the trail was mostly shaded. This was good because, in direct sunlight, the southwestern day felt more like ninety-five degrees.
When we reached the canyon floor, the Box Canyon Trail morphed from shaded single-track to wide gravel path in full sun. To our left was the West Mancos Trail. To our right, the Box Canyon trail continued. We could have chosen to turn northeast and follow the West Mancos Trail for several miles. On gravel. In the hot sun. Instead, we crossed West Mancos River and continued south, veering off the Box Canyon trail onto the more shaded, single-track Coyote Park Trail.
The Coyote Park Trail threaded its way through the woods on the canyon floor and delighted us with an abundance of flora to admire. Pretty Jacob’s-ladder smiled at us from beside the trail, while several species of wild geranium dotted the underbrush. Twinberry honeysuckle presented its double-berry blooms for our inspection. After a few hundred yards, we sidled up to a tiny unnamed tributary of West Mancos River and enjoyed the soft bubbling of the tiny waterway. Bittercress and alpine false springparsley grew in abundance in and around the stream-bed and a kaleidoscope of Atlantis fritillaries fluttered between them, relishing the nectar within. Further on, the Coyote Park Trail doubled back on itself and began to climb the east canyon wall. We made this our turnaround point – we didn’t want to climb out just to climb back in to climb back out … if you know what I mean.
We retraced out steps back to the base of the west canyon wall, taking some time to appreciate West Mancos River again as we recrossed the small stream. When we reached the gravel path, we paused to steel ourselves for the climb. It was mid-afternoon in southwestern Colorado and the day was feeling hot and dry. We only had six-hundred feet in front of us but it would come fairly fast – within less than a mile – and we were feeling soft from our COVID-19 quarantine. We started up.
Ten minutes into the climb, Lisa stopped and turned around. She looked pained and was breathing hard. Lisa has exercise-induced asthma and often the first push uphill is a struggle for her. We stopped frequently for a while and the situation seemed to regulate itself, as it usually does once she finds a good pace. By the time we were halfway up, Lisa was moving more steadily and breathing more easily. At that point I think we both chalked her struggle up to the asthma and put it out of our minds. We reached the top and took a short break. When we resumed, Lisa seemed fine.
This should have been the easy part. One pleasant, partly-shaded, gently-undulating mile left. The views were every bit as spectacular headed northeast as they had been going the opposite direction. But Lisa was still struggling. Lethargic. Exhausted. Here’s where multiple issues can conspire to fool you. Was it the asthma? Or the months of quarantine off the trail? Turns out it was neither. The asthma almost certainly played a role in her initial distress, but what was really trammeling her trek was that sneaky hiker’s hinderance: dehydration.
Why is dehydration so sneaky? Because it is not always marked by thirst. Often it can make one feel nauseated and disinclined to drink. I had an experience with it in Canyonlands National Park, Utah several years ago that put me out for an evening and cut our hike short (read here). It’s not fun. It’s also dangerous, especially if you’re in the backcountry. On any given hike, Lisa generally requires less water than I do, so I don’t always notice if she’s not drinking. On this day, Lisa was carrying a bottle in a daypack. That particular pack makes it difficult for her to reach her bottle and, as a result, she wasn’t drinking enough. Combine that with the dry climate and the exertion, and you’ve got trouble – with a capital T and that rhymes with D and that stands for dehydration. The immediate solution was to ID the problem and get some fluids into her. Longterm, Lisa needs to carry a water bladder system and not a water bottle. She fixed that before our next hike.
We made our way slowly back to the trailhead, stopping frequently for Lisa to drink though a little coaxing on my part was often required, due to her nausea. As we drove away she was starting to feel better.
The Rim and Box Canyon Trails are worth a look if you’re in the area. If you’re a camper, the Transfer Campground will make a convenient jumping off point for this and several other hikes comprising roughly fifty miles of Colorado trails. Sharkstooth Pass can be reached from this trailhead – if you’re up for a twenty-two mile round trip hike with over 4,400 feet of elevation gain. However many miles you do, this area sports tons of beautiful, southwestern countryside. The mile down the canyon rim was the star of this show, while the hike in and out of the canyon offered plentiful wildflowers, the delights of West Mancos River and a bit of rigor one won’t get up top. Check it out – and don’t forget to hydrate! ♦
Date: June 24, 2020
Location: Mancos, CO
Trailhead: 37.466128, -108.210631
Distance: 4.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 680 feet