Discovering the multifaceted cannibal
HE CONFESSED; admitting to one of the most revolting crimes in Colorado history and in so doing, became a legend. Alfred Packer is frequently the subject of tongue and cheek humor and off color jokes. It all began in February, 1874 when Packer and his companions were stranded in a snowbound wilderness, out of food and far removed from help. According to Packer’s confession, his companions were equally desperate and crazed, resulting in the last person standing, Packer himself, gaining notoriety as Colorado’s most famous cannibal. He was tried, sentenced to death and later pardoned.
His infamous massacre site is located along the outskirts of isolated Lake City, beneath the east facing gaze of southwestern Colorado’s colorful San Juan Mountains; and to this day, still attracting curiosity seekers.
High above the eastern edge of Lake City and the churning waters of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River rises a sprawling cliff wall composed of compacted volcanic tuff. Topping these cliffs is a broad, above timberline sea of alpine tundra; its name, recalling the grizzly events nearly 140 years ago, The Cannibal Plateau. Geographically separate from the rugged San Juans, this high plateau is recognized by many as an extension of the gentler La Garita Range.
Driving through Lake City for the first time in June, 1978 with the goal of climbing 14,309 foot Uncompahgre Peak, I first noticed those spectacular high cliffs. In the decades to come, whenever passing through Lake City with the intent of climbing more 14ers and 13ers, I always wondered about the land above those cliffs. While hiking-climbing guides provided plenty of descriptions for ascending alpine peaks west of Lake City, I never found any written information about that nearby eastern high country or how to access it.
My curiosity simmered.
Despite the undeniable reality of getting older, my passion for the high country and exploring new places never diminished. Due to my studying maps more intently than in my younger years, I see details more clearly and eventually located the hiking access to the Cannibal Plateau.
After ascending one of southwestern Colorado’s most imposing natural landmarks; 12,706-foot Bristol Head, Kathy and I continued driving northwest of Creede on Highway 149, over Slumgullion Pass, before turning north on Forest Service Road 788 and parking at 464 Trailhead. Topographically, my map indicated an easy, gradually ascending trail walk over a high, rolling plateau, culminating in off trail jaunts up a pair of broadly rounded domes; Mesa Seco Peak 12,740 and 12,800 foot Lake Benchmark.
Lucy Chocolate Lab bounced gleefully and Lily Golden Retriever shivered with excitement, both eager to begin another adventure with us. Golden grassed meadows beckoned us onward as we zigzagged past scattered evergreens and sun varnished cliffs to timberline and beyond. Overhead, the cloudless heavens dazzled us with the deep blue sheen of early autumn perfection. Perfect except for the chill of a brisk breeze; air temperatures requiring gloves, layered clothing, and snug headgear.
We found miles upon miles of empty, yet rich beauty; to our east, we beheld the gentle ridges and peaks of the La Garitas while our westward views celebrated the exciting San Juans. Despite its forbidding name, we felt quite comfortable wandering atop the Cannibal Plateau.
As for the twin domes, less than a mile apart, the illusion from afar was that of two simple, uphill strolls to their summits. Only when up close, more so for the higher second dome than the first, did we realize that it was more complicated. Carefully, we threaded our way upward around scattered boulders and over wide spread talus to a reward of inspiring alpine vistas
Southward lay the shimmering waters of Colorado’s second largest natural lake, Lake San Cristobal, encircled by the legendary San Juans. Directly below us, Lake City nestled comfortably in a narrow, subalpine valley. Rising above and beyond Lake City, 13,590-foot Matterhorn Peak and the 14,015-foot Wetterhorn were dwarfed by ponderous bulk of Uncompahgre Peak.
Was it really 33 years earlier that I scaled its snowy summit?
So long ago, yet in my memory, it felt like yesterday. Stretching far to the northeast, the Cannibal highlands met Calf Creek Plateau’s undulating tundra and I wondered what was there.
Fast forward to July, 2013
Driving southwest of Gunnison on Highway 149, we turned east on unpaved County Road 58, driving eleven slow, bumpy miles to our 11,000 foot Powderhorn Lakes Trailhead campsite. My guidebook described a four mile hike to the lakes followed by a steep ascent to 12,644 foot Cannibal Benchmark atop the Calf Creek Plateau. This was our hiking plan, but plans frequently leave room for adjustments.
With so much forestland, throughout Colorado, ravaged by pine beetles, we were pleased to find a surprisingly healthy woodlands ecosystem before arriving at a pastoral wonderland. So spacious and welcoming, a lush, open park encouraged us to halt, throw off our packs, and savor its serene beauty.
Unseen hummingbirds zipped around us when Kathy suggested a change to our ascent plans. Rather than hiking first to the lakes, followed by the guidebook recommended steep route to the benchmark highpoint, why not hike cross country west through the climax forest toward the wide tundra ridge rising in front of us? This prime example of why we’ve become such a good outdoors team over the decades made sense.
Even without a trail, the gently rising ridge, saturated with wildflowers, provided easier walking than the adjacent Cannibal Plateau. Dominating the colorful tundra showcase was the grandest array of magenta paintbrush we’ve ever encountered. Truly, we walked with beauty. Indeed, the hike was so relaxing that we topped out neat the enormous, pillar-shaped summit cairn earlier than expected.
Leisure was the name of the game on this summit as we observed Uncompahgre Peak and its lesser cohorts play “now you see me, now you don’t” with the approaching, monsoon propelled clouds. Storms were on the horizon, but there was no need to rush off the summit.
After devouring her treats, Lucy snuggled contentedly between us as we remembered her departed sister, Lily Golden Retriever, who passed away five months earlier. Lily would have enjoyed this hike and her gentle spirit kept us company.
Shadows swept across the thickly forested slopes below us and over the cliffs of Calf Creek Plateau which doglegged southwestward, eventually joining Cannibal Plateau. Thoughts about Alfred Packer and his victims never entered our minds atop Cannibal Benchmark or on Cannibal Plateau 22 months earlier. Rather, we felt that more fittingly descriptive names would be Peaceful Plateau and Peaceful Benchmark.
More than being a legendary, local history footnote with dazzling panoramas and pleasant high altitude hiking, the Cannibal Plateau is also the site of one of Colorado’s most stunning geologic happenings. More than 700 years ago, decomposed volcanic rock, in conjunction with heavy rains, slumped into a massive earth flow off of the Cannibal Plateau‚s southwestern rim. Over four miles in length, descending nearly 3,000 feet in elevation, and covering 1,000-plus acres, this geologic anomaly, known as the Slumgullion Earthflow, blocked the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, creating Lake San Cristobal.
Centuries later, a second earth flow broke off the plateau, one that still remains active, presently moving between three and twenty feet annually. Viewed from a turnout with interpretive signs along Highway 149, the top of the earth flow is the same sun varnished cliff face we hiked past in September, 2011.
Detouring off trail on that day during our descent from the Cannibal Plateau‚s twin domes, we stopped at the cliff edge, looking down upon the mountainside’s enormous and dizzying, whitish-gold gouge; the Slumgullion Earthflow as viewed from a unique perspective. Being simultaneously destructive and creative, the unleashed energy of this event must have been both terrifying and mysteriously beautiful. We could only imagine.
1. Gunnison Basin National Forest map
2. Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, Lake City, Colorado published by Trails Illustrated Topo Maps now National Geographic Trails Illustrated Topo Maps
3. Southern Colorado Scenic Guide by Lee Gregory, published by Johnson Books Boulder, Colorado, 1984, pages 136-137, Pages 142-143 (book probably out of print)
4. Timber, Talus, and Tundra - 2nd. Edition by Mary Ann Tarr, published by Uncompahgre Books, Gunnison, Colorado, 2007, pages 215-217