Rock riddles around Cotopaxi
If you blink, you might miss this diminutive community squeezed amongst Bighorn Sheep Canyon’s rocky desert hills midway between Canon City and Salida. On the surface, Cotopaxi (meaning “neck of the moon”) looks like a throwback to a simpler era. Maybe. Yet, this village, boasting one of Colorado’s most highly rated school systems, also has gaggles of wild turkey strutting around town and feeding nightly at the local high school football field.
Visiting the “center of everything” Cotopaxi Store at the junction of US 50 and County Road 12, I sensed the heritage of an authentic Colorado community. Like a Walmart, the store is stuffed with abundant variety; a bit of this and a bit of that, but a corporate Wal-Mart it ain’t, being much more down to earth.
Remembering that there is the 19,347 foot Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador, I wondered how that unusual name found a home in central Colorado. It turns out that around 1870, Gold Tom, after having traveled in Ecuador, noticed that 10 mile distant 12,823 foot Wulsten Baldy (which I climbed in October 2011,) in Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Range, bore a marked resemblance to its famous, much higher South American counterpart. Thus, the name.
Cotopaxi also provides an infamous footnote in recent Colorado history, being the last place in our state when, in the 1970’s, a human was eaten by a black bear. According to a longtime Cotopaxi resident, this “down on his luck” fellow lived in a rickety trailer north of town. Neglecting to keep a clean yard, his grounds were an open invitation to hungry bears, one of which broke into his rundown trailer looking for a meal.
Always having been curious about hiking possibilities in the hills around Cotopaxi, I decided to check out the area in late February 2013, being rewarded with intriguing “off the beaten path” wanders and finding numerous unnamed highpoints to climb. Through early May; Kathy, Lucy Chocolate Lab, and I hiked there six times. Driving north 1.8 miles on County Road 12 from the US 50 junction, we found a difficult to see entry point into public lands via the Sand Gulch jeep track. All but the first of our hikes originated from a parking area .5 mile from the county road entrance. We then hiked on this track for varying distances, either north or south, on two close by tracks before heading cross country towards whichever highpoint caught our fancy.
This was new territory for us and despite having a topo map of the area, we didn’t know what to expect. Our map depicted the lay of the land in forty foot contour intervals and while we could ascertain the terrain’s steepness by the width of space between the contour lines, there was no way to identify the land’s geology. Was the forty foot space elevation gain, indicated between contour lines a steady, surefooted rise or was it loaded with rocky obstacles?
We well remember our first venture into the Cotopaxi Sand Gulch area. Temperatures were brisk, the sky a heavenly blue, and a few inches of newly fallen snow blanketed the high desert. Not knowing how drivable the track was, we parked just off the county road and began walking, comparing the terrain with our topo map. It matched. We quickly realized that the track was drivable, assuring ourselves of not having to walk an unnecessary mile on future Sand Gulch hikes.
Topographically, our map made the day’s destinations appear straightforward and easy. However while walking up the gradually ascending Sand Gulch track to a broad flatland at the base of our first destination peak, we received ample forewarning as to the true nature of the Cotopaxi hills. Those brushy hillsides abounded with massive, oddly shaped clusters of boulders frequently stacked atop each other, the most imposing being a jumbled and foreboding fortress-like wall composed of splendid, multi-jointed granite.
That first hike up Peak 7370 introduced us to the rock riddles which typify many of the highpoints found in the Cotopaxi Sand Gulch area. Not as easy as our topo map indicated, the required route finding proved to be challenging enough to limit us time-wise to only one peak. Working our way around behemoth rock formations, we played a “soon to be familiar” game in Sand Gulch, squeezing between narrow defiles and lifting ourselves up snow laced rocks.
Once on top, we beheld the narrow, southwestern string of snowcapped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, quickly identifying Wulsten Baldy as the peak whose shape inspired the naming of Cotopaxi village. Rising regally to the northeast and overlooking the hamlet of Texas Creek, stood Bighorn Sheep Canyon’s most distinctive natural landmark; enormous, steeply walled 9,185 foot Table Mountain which we summited in April, 1994. Somewhat closer and directly north of us towered the 8,368 foot, arrowhead shaped summit of Garrell Peak, so menacing in stature that we considered it beyond the abilities of our mid-sixties bodies. During the following 2 ½ months, we repeatedly saw those same alpine and desert peaks, from slightly different perspectives, after topping out on an obscure Sand Gulch summit.
However, not all rock riddle games in Cotopaxi’s Sand Gulch led to success. As in all games, you win some and lose some. Late March, after a quick walk up Peak 7,240; one of the area’s few highpoints offering expansive vistas minus the rock riddle game, we focused our attention on a nearby sinister assortment of confused, piled granite; Peak 7280 being the Ying to Peak 7240’s Yang.
Realizing that a frontal approach would be an exercise in futility, we circled around the peak’s hidden backside, hoping to locate a summit route. As expected, our map’s contour lines gave no clue as to what we would find. Playing the puzzling rock riddle game; we weaved, squeezed, and hoisted ourselves around and up the rocks. With the boulder piles being so tough, tight, and steep, we removed our packs for the final assault, but to quote Kenny Rogers, “You gotta know when to fold them and when to walk away.” Well, we knew it was a long shot and couldn’t complain as there was no way for us to circumnavigate or negotiate the final, intensely angled, jointed granite pitch to the top. Who knows, maybe twenty years earlier, we may have given it a shot - or maybe we would have been more reckless and less wise, resulting in injury.
Fortunately, most of our Sand Gulch rock riddle experiences didn’t end that way as in the case of the jumbled and foreboding fortress like wall we noted during our first sand Gulch hike. After easily ascending a different Peak 7240 in early March, we looked across a narrow valley towards that wall and its 7,440 foot beautiful, but intimidating highpoint.
After descending Peak 7240, we looked up at Peak 7440 and shook our heads, “Nope, that won’t do.” Shrugging our shoulders, we walked north up the valley which soon narrowed into a mini canyon. Full of curiosity, we followed our noses as the mini gorge spiraled upwards, like a corkscrew to a sloping plateau and its broad highpoint, a hundred yards east of the foreboding wall’s uneven rim. What a treat to lounge against a chair-like boulder, enjoying our unobstructed views. We felt like we were in the center of the universe!
Interestingly enough, never during our six Sand Gulch hikes did we encounter any sign of black bear presence. Where had all the bears gone? Decades earlier, one unlucky fellow had definitely been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Kathy and I would have several more exciting adventures in this puzzling land of rock riddles, feeling grateful about having taken the risk to enter and explore the unknown. Indeed, that is what true adventure is all about!