The Goulding Creek Trail: A Meadow Quintet

I was apprehensive.

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Fireweed

With COVID-19 on the loose we hadn’t hiked much; now, we stood at the trailhead of a nearly 2,000 foot hike. That’s the elevation – the length was 31,680 feet, or about six miles. It was an out and back hike, so that two-grand worth of uphill would come inside of three miles. A couple of years ago that wouldn’t have even phased me, but an injury and the quarantine had conspired to keep me from my usual hiking regime. I was out of shape. Better get used to it – we had several hikes with similar stats planned in Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Wilderness in the coming weeks. There was nothing to do but start climbing.

IMG_7773Before you can hike the Goulding Creek Trail, you have to find the Goulding Creek Trail. “No problem,” you say? “You’ve given us the GPS coordinates!” We had those coordinates too. Also, Lisa had been there before … and we still missed it. The problem is, the trailhead is on a Forest Service road that isn’t mapped – at least not by Google. In fact, we asked two Forest Service employees for help in finding it, and although they were standing less than a thousand feet from the trailhead, they didn’t know either. The turnoff to this road is a quarter-mile past the spot where your navigation app will claim you have reached the trailhead. Additionally, this turn looks a lot like the many gravel pull-offs that line the shoulder of Route 550. The coordinates of the entrance to the forest road (not the trailhead) are below:

37.514813, -107.817971

Headed north on 550, turn left at the above coordinates. Go 200 feet and make another left. Follow this dirt Forest Service Road for almost a quarter mile to the parking area and trailhead.

A sign at the trailhead warned of dangers (fallen trees, debris, etc.) due to the recent 416 fire. One of the largest wildfires in Colorado history, the fire burned throughout June and July of 2018. Lisa had hiked this trail in 2019 and assured me that the burned areas did not detract from the overall beauty of this hike. We started off.

IMG_7544Uphill through brushy foothills we hiked. The trail was overgrown near the trailhead, but that only lasted for a few hundred yards. We passed an abundance of wildflowers – field bindweed grew near the ground, while purple alfalfa and Rocky Mountain penstemon bloomed at our knees and waist. Wild rose added to the splashes of color on each side as we made our way west into the San Juan Mountains. Soon we were getting views out over the Animus River Valley and Route 550. It was a beautiful Saturday and every recreational motorcyclist was headed up to the Million Dollar Highway. Be prepared for some road noise for the first leg of this hike.

The Million Dollar Highway is the stretch of Route 550 between Silverton and Ouray. This beautiful winding road is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway and passes through some of the most impressive parts of the San Juan Mountains. Characterized by hairpin turns and steep drop-offs, this twenty-five-mile drive tests your driving mettle but rewards you with gorges, rustic old mines, and amazing vistas.

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Route 550 from the trail. That’s my Subaru Crosstrek parked behind another red vehicle.

IMG_7583IMG_7587After a third of a mile, the climb began in earnest. We were out of the brush and into the woods where the trail began switchbacking up the mountain. We started to see evidence of the 416 fire. At first, it was just a charred log or stump, but as we gained altitude the damage became more pronounced. Soon blackened trees were everywhere. Some were dry and brittle; others still clung to life. The lack of foliage afforded us less obstructed view of the rocky crags toward which we climbed as well as the valley we were leaving behind. There was a kind of desolate beauty to the stands of fire-ravaged trees, a haunting stillness that provoked introspection. We moved more reverently through these sections as if through a cemetery.
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The Animus River Valley through a fire damaged area

The climb was relentless. Over twenty-five switchbacks carried us the first thousand feet up Goulding Creek. Back and forth we went, stopping frequently to enjoy the increasingly impressive views of the Animus River Valley. The higher we climbed, the better they were. The trail was frequently choked with rocks and roots, but we hit occasional stretches of smooth dirt. It was a treat to simply walk uphill; navigating unevenly spaced rock stairs of widely varying heights quickly became tiresome. Eventually, the grade became more shallow and the switchbacks ended. We were headed through a small pass between two mountain peaks. The rise was much more gentle, and the trail was smooth and soft. The views behind us were expansive but quickly disappearing. We were advancing into the mountains.

IMG_7583IMG_7597IMG_7608IMG_7614Although we had been following Goulding Creek upstream the whole way, we had not seen or heard water. Now, as we turned north up the valley, the melodious sound of the creek reached our ears. Not too long after, we were alongside the bubbling brook. When we entered the pass it was with sky above us. Now, the San Juan National Forest closed in, and we trod through dappled sunlight. 

IMG_7627Moments later we emerged into the first of five magnificent meadows. Creek and trail twisted through a grassy paddock that swam in pastoral beauty. A few tall, straight pines stood casually around the creek, the wind giving breath to their Monday morning water cooler conversation. Wildflowers dotted the hills which sloped gently upward to meet stands of stark white aspen. Purple clusters of hound’s tongue greeted us as we made our way along the thread of trail that wove through the verdure. Mountain bluebell congregated in patches next to Goulding Creek, and owl’s claws be-speckled the meadow with their bright yellow blooms. We spent a good while absorbing the pleasant atmosphere and delighting in the flora that surrounded us. This was as far as Lisa had hiked the previous year, but with both time and energy left, we decided to see what lay further up the trail.

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Lisa IMG_4869

Hound’s Tongue

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We continued north, entering forest again at the far end of the first meadow. We passed through several yards of woods and then … another meadow! Smaller than the first, but similarly appointed, this was meadow number two of our five-pack of delightful pastures. Three and four came in much the same style – woods, field, repeat. All were similar to that first handsome meadow but none quite matched its singular charm. Finally, we entered the longest stretch of forest yet. On the other side was the last in our quinary quest for mountain beauty.

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The second meadow …

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… the third …

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… the fourth.

The last meadow opened up more slowly, the aspens dwindling and falling away rather than ending abruptly. We stepped into a long, narrow clearing that curved gently to the right. A hundred yards away stood a log cabin, its tin roof the same ashen color as the cloud-filled sky. As we drew nearer to the cabin, we saw a horse paddock, standing empty, to the left of the trail. This was as near to perfection as we could imagine. The driveway to this idyllic homestead was the trail we had just trodden. The junction with the Pinkerton-Flagstaff Trail lay 150 feet uphill from the cabin, but that trail only probed deeper into the San Juans. There was no fast track back to civilization. Peace. Quiet. Tranquility. We sat down on a log in front of the cabin to enjoy that trifecta of treasures. Oh, and to have a snack.

IMG_7684IMG_7689IMG_7693The cabin was a bit ramshackle. There was a roofless porch on the southwest side. Tools and bits of gear randomly hung on the outside walls and gave clues to life at this ranch – a rusty saw, a stirrup, a bit of a bridle. It seemed clear that horses played a role in the day to day activities, and we wondered how long it had lain empty. We speculated about the former inhabitants while we munched Kind bars. When we finished, we donned our packs and headed back the way we came. Sad to leave the bucolic spot, we turned to look over our shoulders several times before the cabin was lost from view.

IMG_7694Lisa IMG_4934We took our time passing through each of the meadows again, but once past the last of them, we quickened our pace. We had a brutal descent ahead and were dreaming of dinner. As we passed a fallen tree, two ridiculous squirrels careened down the log chattering noisily. They charged to within about five feet of us, then, suddenly noticing that their shenanigans were no longer private, turned on a dime and disappeared into the brush. Chuckling at their antics, we retraced our steps to the parking area.

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The Goulding Creek Trail is a solid hike. Plenty of rigor combines with the splendor of the five meadows to check most of the boxes for a first rate hike. The downside was the road noise at the beginning and possibly the fire-damage. Personally I found the burned area as interesting as I would find any natural feature of a back country hike. It was sad to see the destruction of an area of natural beauty but gratifying to see life springing back – saplings pushing up through deadfall, a flower in the barren wasteland, new leaves on a tree that had a scarred and blackened trunk. Every day that passes brings new life and healing to the damaged forest. Lisa loved the hike enough to do it again and to share its charms with me. Give it a try – if you can find it.  ♦


Date: June 27, 2020
Location: La Plata County, CO
Trailhead: 37.511622, -107.820009
Distance: 6.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,938 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

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