Big Al and West Mancos Trails: Pleasant Surprises and Abandoned Hikes

Hey, West Mancos Trail … we’re just not that into you.

Some hikes just don’t work out. Some days you just don’t feel it. We should all be comfortable abandoning a hike that isn’t tripping our triggers. Hiking when you’re not feeling it can be boring, unpleasant, possibly even dangerous if your mind is somewhere else. The West Mancos Trail was one of those hikes.

But that’s not how the day started ….

IMG_7411The West Mancos and Big Al trailheads are a few yards from each other near the Transfer Campground in southern Colorado, just north of where we started the Rim Trail to Box Canyon two days earlier (read here). We started our day by taking the Big Al Trail out to a sublime overlook with expansive views of the West Mancos River Valley and the ever-present Mount Hesperus. The trail takes its name from a local Forest Service employee, Al Lorentzen, who was injured while fighting a fire near Yellowstone National Park in 1988. Al is now a wheelchair user and the trail that bears his name is fully ADA accessible from trailhead to observation platform.

IMG_7412IMG_7414Wide, smooth, and paved with fine gravel, the Big Al Trail wound through stands of tall, straight aspens on its way to the canyon edge. Tiny meadows broke up the aspen forest and the trail was flecked with colorful wildflowers in every direction. Scarlet Gilia flashed in the brush to each side, its crimson blooms bowed in respect for Al’s sacrifice.  Yellow wooly mule’s ears stood sentry next to the path, and multiflora roses dotted the woods in pink and red. Purple American vetch and orangey paintbrush filled in the gaps between. All in all, the flanking woods were some of the most delightful in the area.

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The grade on the Big Al Trail never exceeds 8%, keeping the trail within the ADA maximum allowable grade of 12.5%, and there are benches located every 500 feet, making this path ideal for wheelchair users, persons with walkers, or anyone with reduced mobility.

The course was a delight to walk and we relished the ability to stroll along carelessly, surveying the Colorado flora without being concerned about tripping over rock or root. Well mostly. Both Lisa and I have occasionally tripped over obstructions smaller than the width of a human hair. These things happen.

IMG_7423IMG_7439A sign near the trailhead listed the distance to the overlook as one-third of a mile. Gaia GPS had recorded nearly a half-mile when the trail bent sharply to the right and entered a thick stand of gnarled oaks. The twisted trees arched over the trail and we passed through this leafy vault to emerge onto a large wood-planked platform perched on the rim of the canyon.

IMG_7442IMG_7460The view from this observation deck is nothing short of sensational. To the west, we looked past a rocky outcrop and down the canyon over a thick forest of pine on the south slope of the river valley. Beyond, the La Plata Mountains turned smoky grey as they receded towards the horizon. Portions of the West Mancos River peeked through the trees below us as it flowed toward its namesake town some sixteen miles downstream. Watching over all was Dibé Ntsaa (Hesperus), its 13,237-foot peak tickling the clouds that drifted above, its base (according to Navajo legend) tied to the earth by a rainbow. We spent fifteen or twenty minutes at the overlook, much of it lost in contemplation. Then we made our way back to the trailhead.

IMG_7472IMG_7464IMG_7463Once back at the trailhead, we turned our attention to the West Mancos Trail. We started down the Transfer Trail, a short connector that runs from the Transfer Campground. That linked us to the West Mancos Trail which runs through the Mancos River Valley from Box Canyon to The Sharkstooth Trailhead – a distance of about 11 miles. From that terminus, one can hike up to Sharkstooth Pass, a beautiful hike that I posted about here. About a third of a mile later, we came to the junction with the West Mancos. That was where things went downhill, literally and figuratively.

IMG_7482IMG_7483The trail was a little overgrown and ill-maintained – not bad, just close. We passed through thick brush and stands of aspen, but no views opened up to us. I stopped and looked at the map. The West Mancos Trail traverses the canyon wall, about two thirds of the way down, for more than two miles. The only point of interest was a crossing of a small tributary called Crystal Creek. I asked Lisa if she was cool with that?  She said she was. We pressed on, continuing to lose elevation, for another five minutes.

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The best view from the West Mancos Trail

I asked the question again. This time Lisa had the presence of mind to turn the question back on me.

“You asked me that five minutes ago,” she said. “What do you think of this trail?”

“Meh,” I replied. I was conflicted. I wanted the miles, but this trail was kinda … well, I’m not sure exactly what the trail was “kinda,” but I wasn’t enjoying myself. Part of my commitment was that I wanted to be able to post about it, but it seemed decidedly lackluster.

IMG_7504We turned and began to climb back up toward the trailhead. I was still feeling conflicted. Ten steps later, my conflict turned to relief. Lisa and I chatted on the return trip, enjoying the climb out of the hot, overgrown trail to see … well … nothing. The more we talked, the more it seemed an excellent candidate for abandonment. Later, I checked online – The West Mancos Trail does not even appear on AllTrails or Go Hike Colorado. I found it on The Hiking Project with the following one line description:

“This is an outrageously rocky trail running through the West Mancos River gorge.”

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The little bit we hiked was not so rocky

The moral of this story? Don’t be afraid to give up on a hike that is not making you happy. Lisa helped me see that the Big Al Trail was worthy of a post in and of itself, and there was a story in our decision to bag a hike that wasn’t turning us on. There are more trails in the world than one trekker could ever tramp – don’t waste time on a hike that isn’t feeding your soul – or at least a pleasant passing of time. I rarely find reason to give a trail a bad review. Maybe pre-hike research leads me to great hikes, or maybe I just love being on the trail – any trail. Well, almost any trail. With an abundance of great hikes in the San Juan Mountains, we would recommend giving this one a pass. The delightfully scenic Rim Trails start less than a hundred yards to the west on the Transfer Road. Do take the time to stroll down the Big Al Trail and enjoy the glorious overlook. We’re pretty sure you’ll be into it!  ♦

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Date: June 26, 2020
Location: Mancos, CO
Trailhead: 37.468416, -108.207869
Distance: 1.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 221 feet
Difficulty: Easy

3 thoughts on “Big Al and West Mancos Trails: Pleasant Surprises and Abandoned Hikes

  1. I’ve stayed on trail for the miles and left thinking that I just defeated the purpose of why I hike … soul food. Thank you, I needed to hear this!

    Like

  2. Glad it helped. I think we’ve all done this – sometimes it’s not that bad, but when you’re not having fun … why keep hiking?

    Like

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